April 4, 2006

Couric closer to CBS anchor chair: sources

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Intense speculation swept two
network news divisions on Monday that Katie Couric, co-host of
NBC's top-rated morning show "Today," is about to jump to rival
CBS and become its evening news anchor, a move many in the
industry see as a gamble.

Two people familiar with the situation told Reuters they
believed Couric, 49, has reached a tentative deal with CBS that
would make her the first woman installed as the sole permanent
anchor of a major network evening newscast.

But they said no formal agreement had been hammered out.
Couric, who has co-hosted NBC's highly profitable "Today" show
for 15 years, remains under contract at NBC until late May.

Representatives for CBS and NBC, controlled by General
Electric Co., declined comment, as did Couric's personal
publicist, Matthew Hiltizk.

"The answer is inside her head, and nobody is there but
her," one network insider said.

Media reports of CBS executives seeking to lure Couric away
from NBC first surfaced in January 2005. Dan Rather stepped
down as CBS Evening News anchor two months later after coming
under fire for his botched "60 Minutes II" report on President
George W. Bush's military record.

Veteran correspondent Bob Schieffer, 69, took over for
Rather on an interim basis, and the third-ranked network
evening newscast has since shown ratings growth, while the ABC
and NBC newscasts have lost ground.

Schieffer has insisted he does not want to keep the anchor
job, and CBS chief Leslie Moonves has repeatedly expressed
eagerness to revamp the evening newscast to lure younger

Buzz about a possible Couric defection gained steam again
on Monday as Television Week reported a deal for her to move to
CBS News had been "completed in principle" and an announcement
of her NBC exit could come as early as this week.

The New York Times reported a similar story on its Web site
late in the day, saying CBS' courtship of Couric had "moved
close to a conclusion." It quoted NBC News President Steve
Capus as saying in an e-mail note: "If the day comes that we
are faced with a change (at 'Today') we will operate from a
position of strength."

Stories speculating about Couric leaving NBC also ran in
the Los Angeles Times and New York Daily News.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that CBS had
offered Couric about $15 million a year to permanently replace
Rather and contribute to "60 Minutes."

The Journal said NBC has offered Couric, who currently
earns more than $16 million a year, a raise and other perks to
stay put, though the CBS anchor job would be more prestigious.

Keeping Couric in place is widely seen as crucial to
efforts by "Today" to hold its own against ABC's "Good Morning
America," the No. 2 network breakfast show, which narrowed the
ratings gap between the two last spring.

"Today," which has recently has widened its viewer margin
over "GMA" again, has ranked as the No. 1 network show in
morning ratings for more than a decade, making it one of NBC's
most important assets. Co-hosted since 1997 by Matt Lauer,
"Today" currently generates about $250 million in profit for
NBC annually.

Independent news analyst Andrew Tyndall said CBS would be
taking a big chance hiring Couric as anchor at a time when the
Evening News is gaining viewers under Schieffer.

"She hasn't got any track record in the evening," Tyndall
told Reuters, adding that he saw no "natural affinity" between
the audience that Couric would likely draw and the viewers
tuning in now to see Schieffer.

"She might alienate as many viewers as she attracts,"
Tyndall said. "It's an awful lot of money you're spending on
her, so just to break even you've got to increase your audience
by a significant amount."

Likewise, he said, NBC would save on her enormous salary by
letter her leave "Today," enabling that show to become more
profitable even if its ratings slipped.

Speculation on possible replacements for Couric have
centered on two NBC News colleagues, Campbell Brown and Natalie
Morales, as well as Meredith Vieira, co-host of ABC's talk show
"The View."