After stints at NBC and CBS, Katie Couric will make ABC the home of her new syndicated talk show.
The project has become one of the industry’s worst kept secrets, with much of the negotiating process played out in the media. After talks with NBC, CBS and Time Warner broke down in recent months, Couric’s camp — which includes veteran syndication executive Ed Wilson, CAA agent Alan Berger, attorney Craig Jacobson and publicist Matthew Hiltzik — turned to ABC, which is set to launch her daytime show in September 2012.
“I’m very happy to be returning to the network where I began my career as a desk assistant in 1979,” Couric said in a statement. “It is tremendously exciting to have the creative freedom to develop my own show with Anne Sweeney, the Disney/ABC TV Group and Jeff [Zucker] and to contribute to such a vibrant, innovative news division.”
For months, many assumed CBS, run by Couric confidant Leslie Moonves, would be the obvious choice for Couric’s next act. But while the company maintained its right to match any Couric offer until the news personality’s contract ended, CBS pulled its own offer early last month. One syndication executive said station owners were polled and many bristled at the idea of replacing Judge Judy — the top-rated show has been renewed through 2015 — for an untested Couric offering. Others suggest too much time and too many demands had gotten in the way.
One source within Couric’s camp noted the disorganization at NBC as a turn-off, while a network source says NBC brass ran the numbers and failed to see how such a series made financial sense. Warner Bros./CNN are said to have been dropped from contention because their parent company could not offer a broadcast network news outlet to keep Couric seen — and thus remain relevant — during the year-plus leading up to the show’s launch as well as serve as a marketing tool once the show is already on.
For its part, ABC had been removed from consideration as a viable option for Couric earlier this year, when Disney executives had offered the then-CBS news anchor a network show rather than a potentially more lucrative syndicated one. The new arrangement not only calls for a syndicated show but also allows Couric to be an owner, reaping tens of millions in success. Similarly critical to Couric was the ability to maintain a news presence, something ABC was able to offer via its news programs. She will begin will anchoring specials, contribute interviews and participate in special events coverage beginning this summer. (The news division’s investment in Couric is minimal, say sources.)
Disney/ABC’s negotiating team has been led by Disney/ABC Television Group president Sweeney, who is working with Janice Marinelli, president of Disney-ABC Domestic Television; Rebecca Campbell, O&O president; Jana Winograde, Disney’s head of business affairs; and Ben Sherwood, president of ABC News.
“Katie Couric is one of television’s iconic figures and we are thrilled to have forged such an exciting partnership with her,” Sweeney said in a statement. “We look forward to having Katie join the best news team in the business and to working with her to create a dynamic and successful talk show franchise.”
ABC’s eight owned and operated stations have already cleared Couric’s not-yet-titled show for the 3 p.m. slot and will return the last hour to its affiliates in the hopes that they, too, will use it to pick up Couric’s show. But what will be replaced from a daytime schedule that will include soap opera General Hospital, local news and two new lifestyle shows The Chew and The Revolution remains unclear. Also up for debate is how CBS and NBC stations, which will be asked to carry the show in many markets, will feel about Couric’s ABC news presence. (CNN newsman Anderson Cooper will be a test of sorts for this when his syndicated talk show launches this year.)
Similarly unclear is whether the show, a major roll of the dice by Disney/ABC, will prove a worthwhile gambit. ABC has not been particularly active in the high-risk domestic syndication business in recent years, having laid low as its rivals continued to launch new product for the daypart. “It’s like they’ve been in hibernation,” says one syndicated source. While the format of Couric’s series is being kept under wraps, the cautionary tale remains former Today show anchor Jane Pauley‘s syndicated effort, which proved a short-lived flop in 2004.
The cost to produce Couric’s effort is estimated to cost about $40 million, a reasonable sum though it doesn’t factor in talent pay or the hefty marketing spend a show of its size would require. The former is said to be between $5 million and $10 million a year for two years (with potential upgrades depending on the show’s profitability), while the latter could exceed $20 million. To be sure, Couric will benefit from the continued press that her every career move seems to generate.
The project is a reunion for Couric and her former Today show producer Jeff Zucker, who will executive produce the show. Months earlier, the pair had discussed the possibility of bringing Couric’s former co-anchor Matt Lauer into the fold as her co-host. Lauer is contractually barred from negotiating with networks outside of NBC until late 2012, when his Today contract expires, and NBC executives are said to be intent on keeping Lauer on Today, which is losing anchor Meredith Vieira this week.
“It was a blast working with Katie at Today and I’m excited to do it again,” added Zucker. “And besides, it should be more fun spending time with Katie at 3 or 4 in the afternoon than at 3 or 4 in the morning.”
Alex Ben Block contributed to this report.