Why Katie Couric's CBS Talks Broke Down

Katie Couric
Katie Couric
 

CBS Television Distribution has pulled its offer to launch Katie Couric in a syndicated talk show, and it is now extremely unlikely they will ever come together on a deal.

However, there is still a chance she could stay with her current employer. Sources close to the anchor note that CBS still has the right to match an offer from ABC or another bidder until her contract expires June 4.

"Until they waive the right to match or until her contract expires at the end of the month, this is just a negotiating ploy," said the source familiar with Couric's discussions, adding, "If she called back now and said, 'You know what. For Reasons A, B and C, I really want to do this with you,' they would absolutely take her."

However, a source close to the CBS discussions calls that "a dramatic overstatement" and says it was the company's decision about a week and a half ago to take the offer off the table.

"The negotiations just went on way too long," said a person familiar with the situation at CBS. "The deal just kept getting more and more rich, with more and more people involved. Then it was all the things that had more to do with news and that had nothing to do with a talk show. If she wanted this Tom Brokaw kind of relationship with the news division forever, it made them wonder if she really was going to put in the commitment it takes to do 35 to 39 weeks a year of original programming day in and day out on a talk show because it's a tough job."

That source added that Couric has never asked CBS to waive its right to match any offer she gets before her contract ends.

The Couric source responded that CBS got frustrated she didn't quickly agree to its offer, and execs became upset when word leaked that she might go to ABC instead. "They are now in cover-your-ass mode," added that source. "They were concerned they were so exposed and had presumed she would stay there. If she goes elsewhere, they are going to look bad."

While that source acknowledged Couric does not have a close relationship with Jeff Fager, who took over as head of CBS News in February, he insisted Couric has talked with him and they agreed they could continue to work together in a new role. "It's not Fager saying all this stuff," said the source. "It's people around him."

NBC dropped out of the bidding of Couric's services, and sources in her camp said she decided not to pursue an opportunity with Warner Bros. syndication tied to appearances on CNN.

However, the offer from ABC is real and is in consideration. It includes a syndicated daily talk show and a role on ABC News, including specials and some election coverage. But no deal has yet been made. If Couric were to close a pact with ABC before June 4, she would be obligated to show it to CBS and they would have the opportunity to match it and retain her services.

The source familiar with CBS doesn't believe Couric or ABC will want CBS to see what it offers and predicts, for that reason, an ABC deal wouldn't close before June 5.

The source said its main interest was the talk show, which would probably launch in September 2012, and that the news presence was seen as a marketing tool "to soften her image and put her in the right forum. Even though it was going to be 60 Minutes and CBS Sunday Morning and primetime specials, it was all to bring the old Katie back. It was a going to be a very organized strategic plan."

Instead, added the source, she seemed to want "a news deal with a talk show attached. That's not what they were looking for. They wanted a talk show with some news stuff attached, mainly to bridge the gap" of time from when she stops being anchor of CBS Evening News at the end of this month until the talk show could launch.

The source noted that her discussions with CBS were with the division that would do the talk show, which would cost about $40 million to launch, while her discussions with ABC have been led by Ben Sherwood, head of the news division.

"There's a time and place for news and a time and place for what a daytime talk show does," said the source. "They got the impression as time went on [a talk show] is not where her heart was. It wasn't just a lack of passion. It was a sense of her fear of failure, rather than saying she wanted to put 150 percent into [the talk show]. She seemed to be saying if this does fail, I'm going to have a backup plan in place."

The source pointed out that CBS, with Judge Judy among its offerings, has the top syndication arm, while ABC/Disney has struggled in recent years to launch syndie shows. "You would think being with the top-rated syndicator would be important to her," said the source, "but there was a sense of her lack of commitment."

TVGuide.com was the first to report that CBS had pulled its offer to Couric.

As THR previously reported, there are few time periods available on major TV stations adjacent to local news because they are tied up for years to come by existing shows. On the CBS stations, Couric would have been offered the period just before those established shows like Judge Judy, and then could work to be upgraded over time.

At ABC, it is believed Couric would also get an afternoon slot, but it is unclear just when. ABC will launch two new shows in the fall and, despite canceling two long-running soaps, it still has General Hospital. Couric would either have to fit in before those shows, or wait until one fails to take that time period.

The source close to Couric said CBS now realizes she may go elsewhere and that executives "just want to be able to say that (whoever hired her) is overpaying or overpromising. It's residual stuff. The truth is she decided to leave CBS and they're upset about it."

"Both sides went in with the same passion," said the person familiar with the syndicator. "The CBS interest waned because of her lack of commitment. Hers waned because of her lack of self-belief. Those are the things that parted them."

CBS declined to comment, and an ABC spokesperson did not immediately return a call. A spokesperson for Couric also declined to comment.

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