10.25.10

Katie Couric, On the Move

The CBS anchor is nearing the end of her contract—and signs point surprisingly to her staying put. Howard Kurtz talks to her about her salary, her next move—and her love of the campaign trail.

Katie Couric is feeling liberated.

Not because she is nearing the end of her five-year contract as CBS anchor—although there’s an unexpected plot twist on that front—but because she’s been spending less time in the studio. You can hear it in her voice.

“It’s great for me to get out of the chair and into the world,” she says. “I started out as a reporter, and I still enjoy reporting.”

Rick Kaplan, her executive producer, says that “when she’s on the road—in Iraq with David Petraeus—she has a great way with people. People like her and she likes them. There are anchors who consider being on the road a pain in the butt. She really looks for opportunities to feel the earth and touch people.”

That’s why Couric has spent recent weeks in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and New Brunswick, New Jersey. She is touring what she calls “this great unwashed middle of the country” in an effort to divine the mood of the midterms.

Therein lies a key reason why Couric has sometimes struggled in her current job. She’s always seemed constrained by the rigid, 22-minute format, a far cry from her freewheeling Today performances over a decade and a half. So she has devised ways to slip out of her $15 million-a-year prison— launching a Web show, engaging on Twitter, and getting out in the field.

What she has learned on her latest excursions is that “American voters are slightly schizophrenic—they want compromise, and yet some of them are ideologically so fixated to one point of view… There are a lot of moderate Americans who are just fed up with negative campaign ads, fed up with the vitriol, fed up with the paralysis.”

Couric was struck by Scott Barclay, a marketing director in Philadelphia, who told her: “When I look at the political situation now, all I really see is that the Democrats are against the Republicans, the Republicans are against the Democrats, and no one’s really for America.” When she was chatting up young voters at Boston College last week, her eyes lit up and a broad grin emerged—not the stern face of the prompter reader.

“Politics can be incredibly cold and horse-racey and one-dimensional, and I’ve never seen Katie do a one-dimensional story,” Kaplan says.

This isn’t the first time she’s been energized by abandoning the West 57th Street offices in Manhattan. She was running on adrenaline during the 2008 conventions, and her tenacious Sarah Palin interviews, which so inspired Tina Fey, were a turning point in the campaign.

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Such episodes are almost like a tonic that enables Couric to forget that, for all the hype and hoopla surrounding her jump from NBC, her newscast remains mired in third place—tying a 20-year low in August, with 4.89 million viewers, during a trip to Afghanistan. Still, numbers aren’t everything, and the CBS Evening News recently captured three news Emmys, one more than Brian Williams’ NBC Nightly News.

Couric gets unplugged in her 40-minute online interviews, with guests ranging from Al Gore and Glenn Beck to Clint Eastwood, Justin Bieber and Chelsea Handler, who engaged in a discussion of whether female comedians have to be sexy. Couric says she created the Web show “primarily for selfish reasons,” that she loves to have “more casual conversations with a huge, diverse swath of people. This allows me to satisfy an insatiable curiosity I have.” Since CBS lacks a cable channel, she has claimed the nearest available real estate.

It’s hard to imagine Dan Rather schmoozing with the rapper Drake, but Couric clearly gets a kick out of it. “Me interviewing a hip-hop rap star may not be that predictable,” she says. “But it’s important that we see people of different niches or backgrounds because we’re so fragmented.”

Each new venture allows Couric to further loosen the anchor chains. She also writes a monthly column for Glamour magazine, interviewing such women as Michelle Obama, Condoleezza Rice and the singer Shakira.

In hindsight, Couric recognizes that her initial revamping of the broadcast—larding it with guest commentaries and nine-minute interviews with the likes of Michael J. Fox—was a miscalculation. “The notion of radical change for an evening newscast, that idea was probably exciting but less doable than I anticipated, given the fragmentation of the audience and the time of the show and the demographics of the audience,” she says. The backlash eroded her confidence for a time and led her to conclude that the job was not a great fit. But she made adjustments, and now just tinkers around the edges.

The elephant in the studio, of course, is Couric’s future. When CBS Chief Executive Les Moonves recently made his end-of-an-era declaration that “the Katie Couric deal will be the last deal of that kind ever done,” he touched off a new round of speculation.

Couric deflects the question, saying: “I’ve never really talked about my salary. I think a lot of people in my business are paid handsomely.” When pressed, she remains cautious: “How the economic paradigm is going to change in the future, I don’t know.”

For some time now, network handicappers have assumed that Couric is on her way out. But insiders say there is now a good chance that she will sign a new deal with CBS that carries her at least through the 2012 elections. She is said to understand that her stratospheric salary would have to come down to earth.

CBS has no clear Plan B—one prospect, Anderson Cooper, recently signed a long-term deal with CNN—so the two sides may not be headed for divorce court after all. Couric has some prominent detractors at CBS News. But Moonves, the only person whose vote counts, remains close to her, and she has developed a stronger relationship with CBS News President Sean McManus.

The argument made by some insiders is that after the bumpy ride of the first couple of years, Couric is now invested in the place and CBS, which also features her on 60 Minutes, is invested in her. I would add this: If Couric leaves after her first contract, she will be viewed like a one-term president. It would take more years in the chair to buttress her anchor cred.

She is, of course, weighing other feelers and offers. Couric could start a syndicated daytime show, or start her own production company. NBC, when Comcast takes over, could put together an attractive package, though it’s unlikely she’d go back to the early-morning grind of the Today show. CNN is still said to be interested in her. And a potential deal with CBS could still fall apart over money.

Couric claims to be too busy with the campaign to focus on What Comes Next: “Obviously, I’m going to figure out where I think I could have a role, a strong role. I’ll have to think long and hard about the choices I have going forward.” But she makes sure to add: “I love my job at CBS.”

In the meantime, she is smitten with her 100,000 followers on Twitter. “My friends accuse me of becoming a bit of a Twitter addict,” says Couric, who has tweeted about everything from the pumpkin latte at Starbucks (she hates it) to catching the new Facebook movie (Mark Zuckerberg seems like a “jerk”).

“I’ve never really talked about my salary,” Couric says. “I think a lot of people in my business are paid handsomely.”

“It’s fun to feel like you have connections with viewers out there. Sitting in the studio, you can feel pretty insulated.”

The feedback, as Couric has learned, can also turn bitingly negative. “I appreciate hearing what people have to say—not always, but most of the time.”

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources , Sundays at 11 am ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.