Katie Couric's Daytime Dangers
How today's brutal syndication market makes her plans far from a slam-dunk.
Katie Couric stopped by her former Today stomping grounds April 13 and told Matt Lauer she's considering launching a syndicated talk show because it would be "fun for me."
It might be fun, but Couric -- despite being one of the most recognizable faces in broadcasting -- would face tall odds in an increasingly tough syndie market.
"It's not difficult to launch a show, but it's very difficult to get a hit," says Brad Adgate, senior vp and director of research at Horizon Media. "She's got a lot of things going for her, but that doesn't guarantee a slam-dunk."
Couric, who makes about $15 million a year as anchor of CBS Evening News, is consulting with her former NBC boss Jeff Zucker and syndie veteran Ed Wilson to figure out the show she wants to do and how she should launch it.
However, her stated goals limit her options -- and her potential to make the kind of money she does now. She has said she would want to join a major network with a strong news organization and a powerful group of owned-and-operated stations. That narrows her choices to CBS, NBC or ABC, which hasn't shown much interest in the anchor. (Although ABC on April 14 canceled the soaps All My Children and One Life to Live, they are being replaced with a lifestyle and cooking show.) Warner Bros. TV doesn't own stations, but it could offer Couric a role at sister company CNN.
But that's pretty much it.
Couric, 54, has indicated she wants to do a newsy show about topical subjects, and that too is a problem in the syndie world. "She is thinking as someone who has done network shows with 52 weeks of originals, like the Today show and CBS News," a top syndication executive says. "In syndication, you do 39 weeks of originals and then 13 weeks of repeats. So you can't really do newsworthy shows because you can't repeat them."
A strip like the highly rated Judge Judy repeats the same day, months and even years later. Even such topics-oriented talkers as The Oprah Winfrey Show and The Ellen DeGeneres Show hold up in repeats.
That is also a potential problem for the syndie show from Anderson Cooper, though it's also a lifestyle show. What happens to Anderson, launching in September, could impact a Couric show. If Anderson is a hit, a station exec says, "it would indicate that's what audiences want and make us more interested in adding Couric's show."
However, a successful Anderson would also lock up many of the few remaining late-afternoon time periods. Observers predicted a rush of new shows to take Oprah's time slots when the reigning queen of daytime ends her talker in May. But that hasn't happened. Instead, proven hits have upgraded their position or stations have expanded news programming.
Among those who have benefited are Winfrey proteges Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz, both of whom were contractually prohibited from competing with her but are staking their claim to the lucrative 3 and 4 p.m. slots.
"Katie's people are spinning that she wants to be the afternoon news lead-in," another syndication exec says. "They didn't do their homework because between Judge Judy, Dr. Phil, Ellen and Dr. Oz, the lead-in time periods are locked up."
The established shows have sewn up multiyear commitments that often include time-slot guarantees. "It isn't like when Oprah went on the air, where everything was one-year deals," notes Bill Carroll, vp at Katz Media. "Everything today is multiyear deals."
Of course, if Couric succeeds, the rewards can be rich. A long-running midlevel hit like Maury earns Povich about $7 million a year. But to exceed her salary, Couric will need a megahit like Judge Judy, which after years of upgrades pulls down about $45 million a year for Judy Sheindlin.
Compensation in syndication is tied to ratings, but in recent years, audience numbers even for high-profile shows have fallen. "You just can't expect Couric to do the 7 million viewers that Oprah did," Adgate says. "The ratings threshold has been lowered."
Consider Rachael Ray, CBS' new network-owned The Talk and even Ellen -- all are seen as successful by luring more than 2 million viewers on average. So if Couric is willing to lower her expectations and build up her audience over several years, a syndicated show could work out for her.
"Once you clear the top 50 markets in the right time periods, it can get very lucrative," says Bishop Cheen, managing director of Wells Fargo Securities. "She just has to land somewhere between Oprah and Ellen."