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The Couric Countdown

The drumbeat is getting louder and louder in the halls of CBS, signaling that Katie Couric is going to leap over to the network this spring when her NBC contract runs out. For the past year, CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves has been quietly wooing Couric to be Dan Rather's replacement as anchor of CBS Evening News. But now the talks are being conducted with a new urgency.

Until recently, the job had been a tough sell, even for a salesman's salesman like Moonves. The news division was in disarray in the aftermath of Rather's discredited 60 Minutes report last year about President Bush's National Guard service, and it couldn't have strengthened Moonves' hand with Couric that Andrew Heyward remained in his job as CBS News president for months, even as rumors of his impending departure swirled.

With Heyward's recent exit and the naming of network sports-division chief Sean McManus to replace him, CBS becomes a much more attractive home for Couric.

The Today star has said in recent interviews that she plans to make a decision by the end of the year whether to stay at NBC or pursue other options, which means Moonves and McManus know they have a limited window to lure Couric into their camp. (And they know that leaving temporary Evening News anchor Bob Schieffer in place much longer is soon going to look like the result of sheer indecisiveness.)

Word inside CBS News is that Viacom is committed from the very top to spend the money needed to reinvigorate a franchise that has become a threadbare operation in recent years, particularly in comparison with the news outfits at NBC and ABC.

Obviously, NBC has been trying to persuade Couric to renew her deal well before it expires—but without success. That only feeds the chatter that she still hasn't made up her mind. According to sources inside CBS, Moonves and McManus are working hard to quickly put a new face on the beleaguered news division and make it look like a place with growth potential. Nothing would send that message more clearly than landing A-list talent like Couric.

Still, Couric's dance with CBS could simply be a negotiating tactic to get NBC to sweeten her estimated $15 million annual salary. After all, she has deep roots at the network: Couric has been at NBC News for 16 years and has a long history with NBC Universal Television Group President Jeff Zucker, going back to their time together at Today in the early '90s.

Meanwhile, since new Today executive producer Jim Bell was installed last April, the show has stabilized—ratings are down 2% in total viewers compared with last fall, but the long push by arch-rival ABC's Good Morning America to supplant Today as the dominant wake-up show seems to have stalled.

Ironically, the fact that Today has seemingly righted itself may provide a rationale for Couric to take flight. Better to leave when you're still on top, this thinking goes, than when it looks like you're jumping before being pushed.

Since her pal Zucker left in 2000, Couric has lived through three executive producers and has taken more than her fair share of media abuse, culminating in a particularly vicious Alessandra Stanley piece last April in The New York Times that charged “America's girl next door has morphed into the mercurial diva down the hall.”

Couric pals say the public pummeling took its toll, and the lure of helming a nightly newscast that would let her exercise more-serious journalistic chops might be too enticing to resist.

Last August, talking about a possible move, Couric, who turns a young 49 in January, told the New Yorker that, when things are going well at Today, she has “one of the best jobs in television.” But she added, “At the same time, everybody needs recharging.” My educated guess? Come summer, don't be surprised to see Couric charged-up about her new job.

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