EXCLUSIVE: CBS Emerges As Front Runner To Land Couric Talker

CBS Television Distribution has emerged as the front-runner to distribute Katie Couric's daytime talk show starting in fall 2012.

CBS CEO Leslie Moonves fully backs the effort to keep Couric in-house, report several sources, and is involved in talks. CBS has an advantage when it comes to keeping Couric, who currently anchors the CBS Evening News, because the company has a clause in its contract with Couric giving it the option to match any offer she gets prior to her contract's expiration on June 4.

Besides the talk show, Couric also would do pieces for CBS' iconic Sunday night news magazine, 60 Minutes, as reported by the New York Post Monday. It's important to Couric to both stay on the air during the year between the time her contract ends and her talk show would start, and she also wants to maintain a news presence, according to her representatives.

While CBS is working hard to seal the deal, other companies remain in play. NBC, whose stations are seen as having the most need for a strong daytime show, remains interested, although CBS' option to match any offer is causing NBC to tread lightly, because "we don't want to negotiate her contract for her," according to one NBC source.

Warner Bros. is also in the mix. Its pitch is that as a syndicator without a station group to serve, it can do the best job of taking the talk show to market and letting interested parties bid up the price. Sources argue that if either CBS or NBC were to distribute the show, it would mean de facto that it would air on the CBS or NBC station groups, but that's a misconception, say several sources.

CBS also intends to take the show to market, and would not confine itself to selling the show to its owned stations, say sources. That makes the best financial sense for CBS - and for Couric and Co. -- because forcing all of its owned stations to make room for an expensive talk show would put several of them in the position of moving other successful shows, such as Judge Judy and Dr. Phil, into lesser time slots at a high price. That would, in turn, put unnecessary financial pressure on the CBS owned stations. It would also mean that the true market price of the show would never be determined because the CBS stations would buy the show without giving other stations a chance to bid. Instead, CBS' sales team will bring the show to every TV market and let stations bid for it to determine price and time slot.

Although ABC doesn't seem to be a strong contender, ABC executives apparently would be more interested in having Couric host a network-based talk show that would replace another hour of the network's daytime programming, such as a soap opera. Deadline.com recently reported that All My Children was a contender for cancellation, but an ABC spokesperson said: "that rumor was just the latest in a long line of rumors about this same topic."

Another ABC spokesman said that while ABC News Chief Ben Sherwood did have a meeting with Couric, as reported by the New York Post two weeks ago, "when someone of Couric's caliber becomes available, you take the meeting." Still, ABC and Warner Bros. are both seen as long-shots in the ongoing Couric derby.

That doesn't remove the ABC owned stations from the picture, however. If distributors do take a market-based approach to selling the show, the top-rated ABC stations will be high on anyone's list. In New York, for example, WABC plans to replace CTD's Oprah with a local newscast as soon as Oprah ends its run on May 25. If that newscast doesn't perform, WABC could be in the market for a new show.

Once it launches, the talk show will serve as a jumping-off point for a multi-platform production company (think Oprah Winfrey's Harpo) that Couric is developing with former NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker as CEO. Zucker would serve as the talk show's executive producer, but he'd also be head of the new company. Ed Wilson -- former head of NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution, Fox Television Network and Tribune Broadcasting - is serving as a consultant to Couric and Zucker.

"Jeff looks at it as this is one of the components of a business he's going to build," says one executive. "Katie is going to be the original jewel in the crown. He wants to be a serious TV developer, and part of his day job will be this television show."
Sources say that Moonves has no issue with going into business with Zucker, even though reporting the two's zingers about one another was once a favorite pastime of media reporters.

Couric herself is vacationing in the Caribbean this week, and observers expect negotiations to heat up once she returns. As Couric's spokesman said: "Katie's on vacation this week, but hopefully this story will satisfy the seemingly insatiable urge to speculate about her future."

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.