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05.25.11

ABC Deal Close for Katie Couric

The network is nearing an agreement with Katie Couric after upping the ante on a lucrative syndication offer. Howard Kurtz reports on the behind-the-scenes bidding for Couric’s daytime show.

When Katie Couric started looking for a new job, ABC wasn’t a serious contender.

Couric’s team put ABC on the back burner because its executives were offering her a daytime talk show that would be owned by the network and air only on its stations. That was far less attractive than a syndicated program that would be marketed to the strongest available stations—and, just as important, allow Couric a major equity stake.

But in mid-March, under the direction of Walt Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger, ABC switched gears. The company pitched a syndicated package that catapulted it into contention for the Couric sweepstakes as she approached the end of her tenure as the CBS anchor. Under the multi-year proposal now on the table, Couric would have almost total ownership of the venture—giving her the potential to make far more than her $15 million-a-year anchor salary.

ABC News President Ben Sherwood provided an important boost, having lunch with Couric and making clear he wanted her to contribute to his news division as well.

The result, people familiar with the situation say, is that Couric is close to signing with ABC, and while the final negotiating points haven’t been resolved, an announcement is likely in early June. The only other contender at this point is CBS Corp., which has formally withdrawn its offer but—under a contract that expires June 5—retains the right to match ABC’s final deal.

ABC has given Couric’s team the full-court press, starting with the L.A. contingent of Iger, who met with her in New York, and ABC President Anne Sweeney. The courtship continued in Manhattan, where Sherwood, a longtime fan who recently took over the news division, is doing his best to make Couric feel wanted.

One potential complication was ABC’s star-studded cast of female journalists: Where, exactly, would Katie fit in? Barbara Walters reached out to make Couric feel comfortable.

One potential complication was ABC’s star-studded cast of female journalists, led by Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, and Christiane Amanpour: Where, exactly, would Katie fit in? Walters reached out to make Couric feel comfortable. And there is no talk of Couric anchoring, except perhaps as an occasional fill-in.

If the deal is struck, Couric will occasionally fly off to big stories or snag major interviews, which would be featured on Good Morning America or Nightline. The expectation at ABC is that the exposure will keep Couric in the public eye for the next year but that her role will gradually be reduced as she concentrates more on the syndicated show, which would probably launch in the fall of 2012. And that suits the news division just fine, as the lion’s share of the cash will be coming from the parent company.

At first, there were three major contenders for Couric’s services: CBS itself, NBC, and CNN.

CBS was an obvious possibility because Couric has a good relationship with Chief Executive Les Moonves and could carve out a role on 60 Minutes. The climate chilled a bit when 60 Minutes Executive Producer Jeff Fager took over as news division chairman and pursued Scott Pelley as anchor. When Couric announced she was leaving the anchor chair—no surprise by that point—the network responded with a cold, two-sentence statement. That was a far cry from the hoopla that surrounded her hiring in 2006 as the world-famous host who was abandoning the Today show to rescue CBS’s third-place newscast.

NBC’s bid faded after Couric’s team confirmed that Matt Lauer could potentially be part of the project. There may be other reasons, but Lauer is hugely important to the lucrative Today franchise and the network wants nothing more than to sign him again when his contract expires next year—not give him the prospect of another NBC vehicle.

Time Warner was an attractive syndication partner, but those talks fizzled in part because Couric was less interested in playing a significant role at its cable network, CNN, than at the broadcast networks with substantially larger audiences.

One factor in CBS’ favor is that it has launched a spate of successful syndicated shows— Oprah, Judge Judy, Dr. Phil—and knows the market intimately. But ABC, with fewer hits in that arena, would make Couric’s show more of a priority. ABC also has a stronger affiliate lineup than CBS.

Still, ABC would have to decide how heavily to lean on its stations to take the Couric show. With Oprah Winfrey having signed off Wednesday, ABC’s owned-and-operated stations are preparing to launch local newscasts in her coveted 4 p.m. slot. Neither network guaranteed that slot.

ABC, like CBS, has been negotiating over how much of Couric’s multimillion-dollar compensation would be guaranteed up front, as a kind of advance on expected revenue once the show makes its debut. Such an arrangement can constitute a gamble if the program draws anemic ratings. But these are the kind of points that can be hammered out if both sides want a deal.

It’s not impossible for CBS to get back in the game at the eleventh hour. But given the strains of the last five years, it looks likely that Katie Couric will wind up at the network where she began her career as a desk assistant.

Correction: Earlier version stated Couric had not previously worked at ABC.

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