Katie Couric’s Daytime TV Debut Makes Her America’s New Girlfriend

Couric dished on dating and diets in her new show. Howard Kurtz on whether she’ll make it in syndication.

Ida Mae Astute / Disney-ABC

Katie Couric got off to a bang-up start on her new daytime show by focusing on one of America’s favorite topics: herself.

Unfortunately, she then moved on to Jessica Simpson.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Jessica Simpson. But it came off as a typical celebrity interview.

Monday’s debut of Couric’s syndicated program began with a funny skit in which she woke up in a darkened bedroom with Matt Lauer, her old sparring partner at Today. That immediately made viewers think of her reign as morning-show queen, as opposed to her more difficult tenure as the CBS News anchor.

When she stepped onto the stage—noting the importance of wearing “great shoes,” with a quick camera close-up—Couric beamed as she described the new show as both “incredibly exciting and terrifying.” Couric recalled her husband’s death from colon cancer nearly 15 years ago, a loss the country experienced along with her, and introduced their nearly grown-up daughters in the audience. Along with her mom.

Her enthusiasm was infectious. The crowd lapped it up, and the audience at home probably did, too.

Then Simpson, now a B-level star, came out, and the momentum sputtered. The moment underscored the challenge Couric faces as an experienced journalist and masterful interviewer who nevertheless must appeal to stay-at-home moms who are more interested in anorexia than Afghanistan. And she must do it in the brutally competitive syndication market.

Simpson’s subject was shedding pounds after having a baby. She’s a paid pitchwoman for Weight Watchers, and Couric even played her commercial, free of charge. Couric asked about Simpson’s weighty struggle, but got such pat answers as the actress’s greatest lesson is “to be kind to myself.” The conversation might have worked as a six-minute morning interview; it felt thin as nearly half the show.

Couric, armed with her blue cards, excels at eliciting information, but not at taking center stage. Other than at the top of the show, she talked little about herself, as if wary of crowding the guest. She is not an outsize personality who makes everything revolve around her. That makes her more likable than many blowhard hosts but also allows the program to drift when a guest is dull.

Far more compelling was a chat with Couric’s friend Sheryl Crow, who wrote the program’s theme music. She talked about being diagnosed with a benign brain tumor and her feelings about ex-boyfriend Lance Armstrong being stripped of his biking titles after giving up his battle against doping allegations.

It was impossible not to chuckle when Couric declared, after a dressing-room viewing, that “you are so smoking hot” and admitted to a crush.

But perhaps the best just-us-girlfriends moment came when Couric asked: “How do you date when you’re Sheryl Crow?” The very same question could have been asked of the host, who opined that “we should do a Sex and the City for the over-50 set.”

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Couric told me in a Newsweek interview that her show is “going to be a little bit different from what’s being offered in daytime, and explore important issues in the way that Oprah did.” She was quick to add that “comparisons are inevitable, and I hesitate to bring that up. I’m a very different person from Oprah, with my own sensibilities and life experience.”

That’s true, and with the strong backing of ABC, which syndicates the program, and her colleague Jeff Zucker, who ran NBC, Couric doesn’t have to be Oprah Winfrey to succeed. The show feels less newsy than originally advertised, which is probably a good thing, given the importance of connecting with the 25–54 female demo.

Perhaps that’s why Couric teased a future program on hair and upcoming interviews with J.Lo and with Heidi Klum, who, according to a video clip, will be asked about splitting from her husband, Seal, who has accused her of “fornicating with the help.”

A little sex never hurts when it comes to spicing up these shows. Maybe that’s why Couric closed by asking: “It was good for me. Was it good for you?” If women find the show sufficiently stimulating, the answer will be yes.