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With production grinding to a halt in the face of the novel coronavirus crisis, the entertainment industry has found itself navigating uncharted territory. To offer a better sense for how, The Hollywood Reporter is running a regular series that focuses on how Hollywood’s top writers, actors, directors, executives and others are living and working in these challenging times.
Through her podcast, daily newsletter and frequent Instagram Live installments, Katie Couric has managed to maintain as close to a business-as-usual mentality as possible from her Hamptons, New York, home — overseeing her staff of 16, nearly all remotely. The exception: Couric’s current assistant, who wrote her senior thesis on the former Today and CBS Evening News anchor and has moved in to help her do research for her upcoming memoir (Unexpected, out in 2021). Speaking to THR last week, Couric opened up about the memoir process, her own attempt to make a TV series about a morning show and the need for more human stories to be told during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Let’s start easy: How are you doing?
As strange of an existence as this is for everyone, I feel very lucky. I’ve got plenty to do. I’ve been staying extremely occupied. Sometimes I wish I weren’t quite as busy as I am.
You do seem to have a lot going on.
I’m doing my podcast from home, and I’ve got our daily newsletter. I’m doing a lot on social media. I teamed up with Time magazine to do profiles of people who have been affected by COVID-19 — initially frontline medical workers but increasingly others. We’re going to do a series on people who have lost their livelihoods. And, oh yeah, I’m writing a memoir.
At what point in the writing are you?
Well, it’s due this summer. I signed up to do it about two years ago, so I’ve been working on it for quite a while. I wanted to write about my experiences while I could still remember — which I thought would be a funny title, but we opted not to name it that. (Laughs.)
This is your first memoir. Why now?
I’ve had this extraordinary career and personal life that spans over 40 years. It’s shocking for me to say, but so much has changed — especially for women in the workplace. I’m writing about my personal experience, but I’m using the backdrop of 40 years in our nation’s history that I’ve witnessed. So much of it’s all recorded, too. My place is full of boxes and boxes of tapes, articles and photographs.
Who’s helping you go through all of this?
My researcher-slash-assistant just graduated last year from Notre Dame. She wrote her senior thesis on me. [To assistant] What’s it called again, Adriana? “Katie Couric’s Career and Shifting Perceptions of Femininity in Broadcast Journalism.” She tried all these different ways to reach out to me and ultimately came over to my apartment to interview me. I was very flattered that she thought I was interesting enough to write about. So when she was looking for work, I said, “You know more about me than I know about me, so come help me.” I’ve adopted her as my third daughter, so she’s been part of our quaran-team.
How are you balancing the personal stuff with the industry and history stuff?
I’m trying to strike the right tone and touch on various aspects of my life. I’ve gone through a lot. I lost my husband when I was 41. I lost my sister a few years later. But I also have very funny dating stories. And there’s the madcap world of network television anchor in there, a business that is fascinating and extremely competitive. There are a lot of interesting personalities I’ve worked with.
How have you acclimated to only interviewing people remotely during this period?
I’ve been very active on social media for quite a while. I’m a “early adopter.” When I went to Yahoo, I had to learn how to iterate content and across different digital platforms, so I feel pretty comfortable in this space. And, you know, a conversation is a conversation.
What do you find yourself watching or reading for distraction?
I just started watching Normal People. I’m two episodes ahead of my husband, so I’ve taken a brief hiatus so he can catch up. It’s beautifully shot, the acting is incredible — and, in the second episode, they’re pretty much having sex the whole time. So…that was nice, but I’m looking forward to seeing if anything else happens in episode three. (Laughs.)
You recently copped to watching the first season of The Morning Show. Coming from that world, did you wait a while to watch or did you jump in immediately?
Oh, they sent it to me in advance. I watched it right away. I was so curious and interested in how they were going to approach it. I had worked on a pilot for a show about a morning show anchor with [Murphy Brown creator] Diane English. Michelle Pfeiffer was going to star in it, but it sort of got lost in the shuffle at HBO during a leadership change. So, I had my own ideas about how that story should be approached. But I thought what they did was interesting. Obviously, they took a lot of what had happened in the last couple of years and incorporated it into the show.
Who do you watch on the news these days?
I really get most of my stuff online, through newsletters — like my own, Wake-up Call, which comes out every morning. I read Axios, Politico, The New York Times, The Atlantic and the New Yorker, so I’m not watching a ton of TV news. I try to watch Norah [O’Donnell] when I can. And I don’t watch a lot of cable news. I caught the town hall [with Donald Trump] that Fox News had at the Lincoln Memorial, which I thought was fascinating in terms of the optics.
Are there any stories you feel aren’t being told right now?
Because the story is changing so frequently, I think people are doing a good job covering it. Initially, I wanted to hear more from the people on the front lines, which is why I was excited for this project with Time. I wanted profiles of nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, people helping with mental health, EMTs. I felt like there wasn’t quite enough human drama — but, then again, I haven’t been watching that much TV.
What are the stories you want to tell?
The thing that I’ve tried to do through my company and my social media channels — and that’s a lot of people I have access to — is talking about the people who lost their lives. There’s a trickle-down effect of this pandemic and its tentacles reach so far and wide in terms of the people affected. There’s no end to the stories — whether it’s somebody who is unemployed or asking what impact this has on domestic violence and child abuse. Nothing really conveys the heartache of this unprecedented period in our lives like the stories of actual people. To me, the most effective kind of journalism makes you able to relate and helps you understand what people are going through.
I’d assume that would be a challenge when you have to maintain a distance from the subject.
I think everybody’s adjusted really well. A Zoom interview can be just as compelling as the face-to-face interview. It would have been much, much harder to cover this story even 10 years ago, but because the technology is where it is, for better or for worse, I think it’s made it fairly easy. People were already doing FaceTime interviews on network news shows, partially to save money, so I think we’re just amplifying what was already being done.
What have you learned about yourself after two months at home?
That I really love to sleep in when I can — and that a pandemic gives you really weird-ass dreams. But there’s something really nice about the quality time with the people you love. I’ve always realized my good fortune, and I’m not a gratitude journal kind of gal, but every day I think, “How can I help people who are going through a tough time?” I’ve tried to do small acts of kindness with neighbors and grocery store clerks, but I’m also trying to support as many organizations that are out there doing great things.
Who have you been working with?
Whether it’s Robin Hood, which works with vulnerable New Yorkers, or helping Bethenny Frankel with PPE [personal protective equipment], I’m just trying to be really mindful about all of these extraordinary organizations — not only to support them, but to bring attention to them as well.
You’re very involved in Stand Up to Cancer. What’s been their response?
Stand Up is really active right now — working with the COVID Symptom Tracker app. There’s a lot of concern that people aren’t going to be diagnosed early enough, in time for intervention because of a fear of hospitals or doctors or because of a lack of personnel. And then there are the people in the middle of chemotherapy, getting their treatment, who have to be extraordinarily careful. They’re immunosuppressed and more susceptible to this virus. As bad as it is for a lot of people, think about the people who are in the middle of cancer treatment.
What are you most looking forward to doing once this is all over?
I’d like to have a big party with people around the table, sitting next to each other. For everyone, a lot of celebrations had to be put on hold. My daughter’s wedding was supposed to be in July, but we knew pretty early on that 200-plus people on a dance floor was not going to happen. I think I’m just looking forward to celebrating the important moments in our lives.
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