06.06.11

Katie Couric and Jeff Zucker Reunite at ABC

ABC didn’t just reel Katie Couric in, but it successfully wooed her old producer—and former NBC CEO—to join her for a syndicated show. Howard Kurtz talks to Couric about her newest venture.

If there is a twist in the much-anticipated announcement that Katie Couric is taking her talents to ABC and syndication land, it’s that her old partner Jeff Zucker is coming along for the ride.

ABC won the Couric primary with a multi-year deal Monday for a program that will air at 3 p.m. and has already been cleared by network-owned stations in such major markets as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco. But the intriguing part is that Zucker, Couric’s producer in her early years at the Today show before he became NBC’s chief executive, is reuniting with his longtime friend.

“He’s a brilliant producer,” Couric told me from Los Angeles. “I’ve never met anyone as prescient as Jeff. He seems to know what people are talking about and when they’re going to be talking about it. He takes chances at times. We have Vulcan mind-melds on a regular basis.”

As for the program itself, Couric says: “We want it to be topical. It’s not a news show per se but we’re going to talk about the news. If Osama bin Laden is killed, we’ll talk about the training of the Navy SEALs. If there’s a story about cyberbullying, we’ll explain that in more detail. We want to range from serious stories to light stories and fun stories. It will reflect my interests, which hopefully will be the viewers’ interests as well.”

ABC President Anne Sweeney says she has been “a big fan and at times a competitor of Katie’s. I’m thrilled that we’re in business with her—the excitement, the curiosity she brings with her, her ability to engage the audience with the storytelling.”

Sweeney says she’s equally pumped about the role that Couric will play for ABC News. Starting this summer, while the syndicated show is gearing up for a 2012 launch, Couric will anchor specials as well as contribute interviews and play a role in special events coverage.

“On a personal note,” ABC News President Ben Sherwood wrote his staff, “I've known Katie for 14 years, and even with all of her success, I'm confident that her best days, biggest scoops and most powerful journalism lie directly ahead.” That means the woman who was the face of morning television at NBC and evening television at CBS will, to a lesser extent, now be closely identified with ABC’s news division.

“Nothing is risk-free”

Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters, among others, welcomed their new colleague. “Katie has so many unique gifts as a journalist, an interviewer and a broadcaster,” Sawyer said in a statement. “She is also a friend and, as she knows, I'm so happy she's joining the team at ABC News.”

The fact that she flopped as the CBS Evening News anchor, at least in terms of failing to lift the broadcast out of the third-place cellar, seems to have not hurt her at all, judging by the courtship of such media giants as NBC, CBS, and Time Warner. The stakes, of course, are high: As The New York Times reported, a successful syndicated show can bring in $100 million to $300 million in annual revenue, and Couric is majority owner of the venture.

Couric says she chose ABC in part because of the efforts of Sweeney and Bob Iger, the chief executive of parent company Disney, and its strong lineup of affiliate stations. “It just felt right,” she says. “Sometimes you have to go with your gut.”

There are, of course, no guarantees of success in the fiercely competitive arena vacated last month by Oprah Winfrey. What worked on Today may not work in mid-afternoon; a newsy talk show may not hit the spot for the heavily female audience. But it’s hard to think of a more marketable brand than Couric’s.

“Quite frankly, I love the hand we have,” Sweeney says. “I love that we’re working with Katie and Jeff. I feel very bullish about this.”

Couric, who is active on Twitter and conducted daily Web interviews at CBS, says the new show will have a strong online component and she hopes to use that to interact with viewers. “Change is daunting, but it’s also exciting and invigorating,” she says. “Nothing is risk-free, in your personal or professional life. Sometimes you just have to take a leap.”

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.