Katie Couric and Jeff Zucker: New Talk Show Isn't Regis or Oprah

Jeff Zucker Katie Couric - H 2012
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Jeff Zucker Katie Couric - H 2012

The collaborators tell THR about their powerful carriage deal (more than 93 percent of U.S. TV homes) and describe the upcoming series in fewer than three tweets.

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- Katie Couric’s talk show for ABC/Disney is the most talked about, most anticipated, best positioned (in terms of station carriage) and by all accounts the most expensive of the bumper crop of syndicated talkers hitting the airwaves in September seeking to fill the “Oprah void” in afternoon television.

Couric, bursting with enthusiasm on the day it was announced that Katie will be seen in more than 93 percent of U.S. TV homes, sees it as her opportunity to reclaim the kind of affectionate cultural connection she enjoyed in her years on NBC’s Today show, most of which evaporated during her ill-fated tenure on the CBS Evening News.

“I think that in returning to this genre I have a real understanding of where my sweet spot is and what I’m good at -- to thine own self be true,” Couric told The Hollywood Reporter on Monday at NATPE, where she was promoting the program to station executives, advertisers and the media.

She welcomes the challenges that come with a new venture and launching a show. “I’ve learned that getting out of your comfort zone can sometimes be uncomfortable, but it’s an incredible opportunity for growth,” said Couric. “I know I sound like I’m in the self-help section of Barnes & Noble, but I’ve learned you must have a lot of inner strength and confidence; and I’ve had incredible support and an incredible network of friends and colleagues who have helped me through the years.”

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She’s also keenly aware that she has also been a lightning rod for critics. “I think we do live in an age where people do get some perverse pleasure out of cutting you down at times,” said Couric. “In Australia, they call it the ‘tall poppy syndrome.’ That means when people grow too high, they need to be chopped down. I have learned to deal with that. Not everybody is going to like you, not everybody is going to celebrate you, and that’s OK.”

Still, even after interviews with Couric, Disney executives and her executive producer and business partner Jeff Zucker, who was her producer for eight of the years she was at Today (and later a top executive at NBCUniversal), it is easier to say what the show won’t be than what it will be.

It will not be a news show, though it will be topical. It won’t be political the way many cable news shows are, though she expects to sometimes feature political newsmaker interviews. It won’t be intensely personal in the way Regis Philbin shared his life with viewers, but she will share her experiences in the course of interviews or as part of telling a story. There won’t be a band, and Katie won’t have a permanent co-host or sidekick who laughs at her jokes the way Ed McMahon did for Johnny Carson.

If there is a defining characteristic so far, it is that the show will be the rare syndicated talk program presented live – most of the time.

“For me there is no substitute for live television,” said Couric. “It’s more exciting. It’s more energizing. It's more unexpected and spontaneous.”

It’s also more expensive and puts huge pressure on all involved because mistakes will be out there for everyone to see. It means boring interviews will be harder to cut down in size and could hurt the show’s ability to repeat episodes due to topicality, even though those repeats are vital to the show’s economic model.

Even Zucker seemed wary about the decision about going live, though he thinks it plays to Couric’s strengths. “I don’t want to be trapped by live, but I don’t want to forgo her unique ability to do live,” said Zucker. “I think our ability to be timely and topical will set us apart. It will help distinguish us in a crowded market. But if we need to tape something we will tape it. Today was live, but we often taped segments.”

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Asked to describe the show in three tweets or less, Zucker responds: “I would say it’s a timely, topical conversation about what America is talking about, particularly women, that runs the gamut from serious to silly and allows Katie to use her broadcast and life experience to have an elevated conversation that fits into the daytime marketplace.”

The key phrase, when it comes to the show being a success, is “particularly women.”  The show must appeal to the most available audience and the one advertisers are most interested in reaching in the afternoon – women 25 to 54 years old.

“That’s the exact audience that relates to Katie,” Zucker said. “That is the exact audience that is living the life that Katie is living. She is similar to women who are raising their kids, who are looking for love, who are dealing with an aging parent, who have experienced tremendous highs and lows in their life.”

“I don’t want to sound like a missionary, but I want to help them get the information they need to improve their lives,” said Couric, who turned 55 this month. “I think because I’m just a scotch over that demo, thank you very much. I’m quite relatable. I lost my husband and my sister. and I’ve learned a lot about cancer in the course of my life, and that’s certainly something a lot of people out there have to deal with at one time or another. I’m a mother of two daughters. A single parent. I’m very interested in health and wellness. I’m very interested in understanding the world. I’m very interested in trends and how people are living. I have dealt with aging parents and I’m aging myself. I think I’m interested in a lot of topics a lot of people out there are dealing with, and I’m dealing with them too. So hopefully the kind of things I’m interested in and the things I think are important for us to have a better understanding of are the things the audience cares about as well.”

Couric and Zucker went out of their way to say that while Katie will try to attract the audience that made Oprah Winfrey their first choice in the afternoon for a quarter of a century, they don’t in any way think they can replace her.

Couric said nobody can fill Oprah’s shoes. “No,” she says, adding with a smile: “But I’d like to have some of her shoes. She had great shoes and a lot of them.

"I have utmost respect for Oprah. She is a remarkable person. She has done so much for the world. It presumptuous to think I could, but I do think that Oprah’s show had a certain intelligence, relevance and humanity, and she had ability that I certainly hope are qualities that my show will have as well.”

Zucker sees Katie filling more than Oprah’s shoes; he thinks she can be the friend the audience has been missing. “There’s a lot of great television on in this daypart. Ellen [DeGeneres] is a great entertainer. Dr. Phil’s a great therapist. Dr. Oz is a great doctor. But there is no one who can be that trusted friend.”

Couric and Zucker insisted Katie won’t be a vehicle for every celebrity who has a book to hawk or a movie opening.

“I’m not really interested in being the fifth stop on a junket,” said Couric. “But I’ve found celebrities -- I hate that word talent -- actors and musicians are often multidimensional individuals and have a lot of things that they are interested in, and hawking their latest movies is their least favorite part of the dialogue. A lot of people are very interested in particular causes or are politically active or have personal stories that may resonate with an audience, so I think you can do much more multi-layered interviews with celebrities than you sometimes see on other shows.”

Couric said she will be involved in every aspect of the show, but a lot of the decisions will fall on Zucker, who said that at least in the first year, he will take the role of showrunner and be deeply involved and hands-on.

“This is not the only thing I want to do but it’s the only thing I want to do right now,” he said. “This is my total focus right now, though there are a lot of other things I think about and look at.”

Zucker eventually wants to build a larger entertainment company but also saod he wants to get back in the trenches that he worked in on Today. “I love it all," he said. “I love the whole thing. There was always a piece of me, even when I wasn’t producing, that missed it, missed being in the control room. So look, I want to get this show right.”

Couric talked to other companies before making her deal with Disney, most notably CBS, where after intense discussions, they were unable to reach an agreement. CBS Television Distribution instead is launching a talk show with Survivor host Jeff Probst. Couric for her part has no regrets about the way it worked out.

“I feel great about where I landed,” she said. “I feel really comfortable with everyone at Disney and ABC News. Every aspect of the company was really excited about not only my work on the syndicated show but what I could contribute to ABC News as well. I have absolutely no regrets.”

The cost of the deal and the show, the top-tier station lineup and the fact that Disney is stepping up for its first syndicated talk show launch in years has expectations running sky high. Several analysts have said that if the show doesn’t quickly achieve a household rating of at least a 2 (roughly 2 percent of available viewers), it will be a costly failure.

Couric and Zucker don’t see it that way, or at least don’t worry about it. “There’s no guarantees in anything you do in life,” said Zucker. “All you can do is make an informative, fun, well-done show, and everything else will fall as it will. It’s an incredibly competitive and crowded marketplace.”

“A two rating?!” adds Zucker. “That’s ridiculous. Those are others who are trying to set us up.”

“Big expectations?” said Couric. “Obviously, we all hope the show is successful. But I’ve never been super focused on ratings. I’ve always been focused on content. I know a lot of my counterparts are really are completely myopic when it comes to ratings.  I just want to do the best show I can. What else can I do?”

“I feel pressured to do well,” she added. “Of course I feel pressure. I don’t want to let people down, most of all the viewers. But I’ve been in high-pressure situations through the  course of my career and I thrive under pressure. All I can do is what my dad has told me my whole life: Just do the best that you can. The chips will fall where they may. But I’m going to give it my all.”