Katie Couric: How I Met Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer; Why the Web is a ’Step Up’ from TV (Q&A)

9:00 AM PST 04/17/2014 by Marisa Guthrie

Yahoo's new "global anchor” was invited on a 48-hour Turks and Caicos retreat with an elite group of thought leaders, coordinated by the tech giant's CEO, in April 2013.

This story first appeared in the May 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Katie Couric enters the back room at The Smith restaurant near Lincoln Center with a retinue of assistants, publicists and at least one groomer. "I don't usually travel with a small nation," she says. But it takes a village, especially when you're filming seven or eight shows a week (for her ABC daytime talker, Katie, which will end in August), planning a wedding (June at her East Hampton enclave) and settling into a new and, since January, second job as Yahoo's global anchor.

Couric had crossed paths with Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer in the past, but Mayer first floated the offer in April 2013 at a Yahoo retreat in Turks and Caicos, where Mayer had flown an elite group of thought leaders for a 48-hour confab. At that point, Katie had lost original producer Jeff Zucker, who left to run CNN, and Couric had begun to chafe under the exigencies of daytime. "There's a Venn diagram," she says. "Things that I'm interested in and care about and things that you can get enough people in a daytime audience watching. There is some overlap, but there were plenty of times that I wanted to do something and it just wasn't appropriate for a daytime audience."

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The show would cycle through three executive producers and eventually collapse under its staggering cost -- it initially was budgeted at $50 million, including $10 million annually for Couric -- which only ratcheted up ratings expectations. (Katie finished its first season as the No. 1 freshman talker; so far this season it is averaging a 1.7 household rating, ranking No. 7 among syndicated talkers. Not good enough, given its expense.)

But Couric, 57, says she has "no regrets." Dressed in a navy print Elie Tahari dress -- sleeveless to show off those toned arms -- she exudes the girlfriendy charm that has made her an enduring TV news personality. "Part of living a full life is to continue to tackle new challenges and learn and ask questions. I think that keeps you feeling alive."

And if one of the most recognizable anchors in the industry soon will cease to have a regular TV platform, she's not sweating it. "This is not my first rodeo," she says. "I've been in the business for a long time, and I do think people are looking for credible, quality content online and not necessarily bits and pieces or just repeating a rumor."

Do you consider the web a step down, as some in traditional media would perceive it to be?

I consider this a step ahead.

Did you have any hesitation about going to a digital platform?

I've done so many exciting jobs in television. So I had tackled pretty much almost everything. I'm not turning my back on television, and I love television and I watch television, and ideally when I have a good, important interview, there will be a place somewhere on television that wants in. Right now, I don't really have a codified relationship with any network.

When you're booking newsmakers, do you find there's still a perception that the web doesn't have the reach of TV?

It depends on whom you're booking. A lot of people, even the more traditional guests who you think might want to go a more conventional route, are intrigued by the prospect of doing something on Yahoo. I think they appreciate the fact that they would be talking to someone who's experienced. So I think that may balance any discomfort they feel about the web.

Does Mayer give you input on stories?

Marissa has been incredibly supportive and appreciates having someone who is experienced in developing and producing quality content. She has the same high standards that I do.

Do you feel like Katie was a success?

I do. I really am proud of the fact that we maintained our high standards. I think there was some pressure initially for me to go a little more mass-appeal. I mean, I did some pop culture, but I care about issues. I care about, should we lower the drinking age or not, what are the arguments, pro and con? I'm more interested in that than the cast of Real Housewives. And that doesn't mean that there's not a place for those kinds of shows. It's just not who I am. So what I'm proudest of, honestly, is I didn't bow to pressures to get a wider audience.

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But you did feel pressure to be more mass-appeal?

I think initially, but they knew immediately that that dog won't hunt, as Dan Rather would say. And that just wasn't what I set out to do. A lot of the shows were very serious, and I do think that at first they were like, "She is such a Debbie Downer." But this is what I care about, and I make no apologies for that. Having said that, we did fun shows with Hugh Jackman, the cast of Man of Steel, Barbra Streisand. We had [Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper and David O. Russell of] Silver Linings Playbook on, and we talked about mental illness. It was a thrill to talk to Barbra Streisand about women and heart disease. I tried to give people who care about something other than hawking their latest movie an outlet.

You don't wish it had gotten another season?

Not really.

Is television in your rearview mirror?

I don't know about that. I think I probably will show up on TV again at some point.

Do you think the media has focused too much on the morning-show horse race?

I think they're all doing a really great job. Personality is important in the morning, but content is important, too, and you have to be really careful not to let personality totally overshadow that. I think things are jelling at the Today show. They went through a bumpy ride. I mean, that's not a news flash. And of course Matt and I are close and I'm a big fan of Savannah's, and of course Al is Al. And I think GMA is doing a terrific job. I think CBS This Morning is doing a terrific job.

Do you give Matt Lauer advice?

Me? Matt, no. I don't give Matt advice. I support him and respect him and appreciate his immense talents. He's really good at what he does. I think competition is good; I think it makes everybody better.

If you had done the show with Matt, do you think it would still be on?

Gee, I don't know. As Colin Powell would say, "I don't deal in hypotheticals." (Laughs.) Matt is a very loyal person, and he felt very committed to the Today show, and I understand that because I was there for 15 years. And I think it's the right place for him. He is perfect for that job because he is really funny but also very smart and can be very serious. It takes a very specific skill set to do that show well that people don't understand because people like Matt make it look so easy.

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ABC News just had a difficult negotiation with GMA anchor Josh Elliott, who wanted more than it was willing to pay. Are the days of the mega-salaried anchor waning?

That's really not for me to say. I do think people get a little overly consumed by the behind-the-scenes drama, and sometimes they create drama where there is none. Josh is really talented; I think he saw a new opportunity present itself.

Barbara Walters is retiring. Any thoughts on her impact on the industry?

Astounding and extraordinary. I think people don't appreciate how many barriers she broke down. She lives, sleeps, breathes television and has loved it every step of the way. Every woman in this business owes her a huge debt of gratitude. She couldn't ask a question on the Today show until a man had asked three. Then I was able to go to the Today show and say to [then-NBC News president] Michael Gartner, "I don't want this job unless it's a 50-50 proposition." I couldn't have done that if Barbara Walters hadn't done the heavy lifting for all of us.

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