Katie Goes on an Adventure

Article excerpt

Byline: Howard Kurtz

Can Couric crack daytime?

Ever since Oprah Winfrey abandoned her glittering daytime talk show last year for the struggling cable network that bears her name, people have wondered who might fill the void she left behind. But these days, all that speculation appears trumped by a more fundamental question: can anyone again rule the fractured kingdom of daytime syndicated TV?

The latest to seek the crown is Katie Couric, whose ABC-syndicated show will debut on Sept. 10. The program, called Katie, plans to tackle serious topics, from dating violence to military redeployment: it's "going to be a little bit different from what's being offered in daytime, and explore important issues in the way that Oprah did," Couric tells me--though she adds 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."

Couric would seem to have what it takes to succeed in daytime: a winning personality, bold-faced-name status--bold enough to get her show an original theme song written by Sheryl Crow--and journalistic chops to boot. But here's the rub: she is steeped in news at a time when television news ratings are declining. She is trying to crack the syndication market as its glory days are fading. She is creating a TV program just as the action, and the national conversation, seem to be moving online.

And one more thing: building a daytime show from scratch, attracting an audience, and generating profits is much tougher than it looks.

As the longtime co-host of NBC's Today show, Couric was the undisputed queen of morning television. That changed six years ago when she launched another much-ballyhooed program: her version of the CBS Evening News.

Couric understood that she had to try something different with the show: the creaky formula for evening newscasts was fading in the age of the Internet, when everyone had already seen the day's headlines by the time the news came on. But her attempts to come up with a novel approach--her emphasis on little features and commentaries by outsiders--failed to catch on with the traditional older audience. And sexism from some viewers undoubtedly contributed to her ratings struggles as well. Couric gradually improved the broadcast--visiting Afghanistan and famously grilling Sarah Palin about which newspapers she read--but it was too late. Unable to move the show out of third place, she left CBS last year to seek a daytime deal.

If anyone can help Couric regain her magic touch, it's Jeff Zucker, her first executive producer at Today and a partner on her new venture. After building the top-rated morning show, Zucker went on to become chief executive of NBC, but he left after Comcast bought the network. "Jeff has an incredible knack for news, pop culture, and setting the agenda," says ABC News president Ben Sherwood. At Today, "he shifted the center of gravity from 6:30 in the evening to 7 in the morning."

The reunited duo views their upcoming show as filling a void for deeper conversation, and Couric has put together her 100-person staff with an eye toward distinguishing herself from the competition: she was careful, she says, not to hire only people steeped in daytime fare. "It is a different animal," Couric tells me. "We didn't want the staff to be so ingrained in how it's always been done that we couldn't move in a different direction." She also tells me that many of her topics will be "not that far removed from what I did on CBS Evening News."

But this strategy could be missing one key element. Emotion is what tends to attract daytime viewers, and while Couric excels at dragging it out of others, she draws a privacy curtain around part of her life. In early tapings she has played the charming interviewer, not the powerful personality who creates dramatic moments. If she mentions an example from her life, she slips it in as an aside. …