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Big Bucks for What?

The estimated $13 million-$15 million that CBS will pay Katie Couric and the $10 million- $12 million that NBC will pony up for Lauer's new partner, Meredith Vieira, are testament to the fair-market value of the name-brand talent in such short supply. If Couric adds as little as half a rating point to CBS Evening News and improves its demographics—which I think she's likely to do—she will have more than paid for herself. (Remember: Part of that paycheck is amortized against her contributions to 60 Minutes.)

Conversations with scads of agents, lawyers and network brass only confirm this state of affairs. Amidst all these high-profile talent negotiations, there was near consensus on one point: When someone is seen as “a scarce resource,” says one exec, “we back up the Brinks truck, and deals get done with amazing swiftness.”

ABC may not have gotten the memo, however. Much of the industry is baffled that the network failed to step up and pay to hold onto Vieira. By letting her go, not only did it help to strengthen Today, but it put the future of two franchises that depend on Vieira, The View and Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, in jeopardy.

From what I've heard, Vieira might have stayed in the ABC family and even stepped in at Good Morning America—for less than what NBC paid. But that option was nixed at the most senior levels of corporate parent Walt Disney Co.—the media giant has a long history of being penny-wise and pound-foolish. If Disney had more faith in Vieira, it would have enabled ABC to move Good Morning America's Diane Sawyer or Charlie Gibson to World News Tonight, which has been adrift with Bob Woodruff still recuperating from life-threatening injuries sustained in Iraq and his co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas about to go on maternity leave. Now both shows are wavering.

The unfortunate result of all this clamoring for marquee names, while understandable given the tight market for talent, is that we now have a two-tiered system. One talent manager told me that those “beyond the A-list” are getting squeezed; negotiations can drag on forever, with much back and forth about even a cost-of-living raise. And it's not just on-air talent; entire news operations are affected by top-heavy salaries.

It reminds me of an anecdote from years back, when one of the Big Three news organizations was going through big cuts. The handsomely compensated anchor of the nightly newscast innocently asked his executive producer why so many fine people were losing their jobs. “How do you think they just paid to more than double your salary from $3 million to $7 million?” the producer shot back.

Last week, Peter Osnos, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, proposed in a column on the think tank's Web site that Couric take half of her salary and pledge it to funding in-depth reporting on issues of substance.

Maybe Lauer, Vieira and the others in the eight-figure-salary club should give that some thought, too.

Timing is everything, as Matt Lauer and his agent, Kenny Lindner, well know. Despite the remarkably smooth (so far) changing of the guard at Today, Lauer and Lindner knew the situation was ripe for Lauer to extend his deal and double his pay. With more than $250 million at stake on the franchise morning show, NBC was undoubtedly more than happy to pay to keep Lauer locked up—and the show stable—until 2011.

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