the pulse

CBS may be pondering move from Couric Broadcasting System

As Katie Couric logs another week holding down a distant third place as lead anchor on "The CBS Evening News," we're now starting to hear chatter that her days as a $15 million-a-year flop may well be numbered — this, a mere 22 months into her five-year deal. Translation: "Today" has little impact on tomorrow. Or yesterday.

No less an authority than the Wall Street Journal reported in its pages Thursday that Couric is likely to say sayonara to Murrow Manor well before the scheduled 2011 expiration of her contract and possibly as soon as early 2009. The paper cited unnamed "CBS News executives" and "people close to Couric" as its sources.

And how might this all go down, you ask? As it's rare to find even rich people willing to forego $30 million in salary out of sheer benevolence, we're clearly talking buyout. So much for the seminal impact of hot new graphics, a state-of-the-art set and interviews backed by a roaring fire. Evidently, those seasoned souls who bother to tune in the nightly network broadcasts still prefer middle-aged white guys to deliver their world in 30 minutes.

A CBS News spokeswoman denied there was any plan afoot to dump Katie now or in the future. But what else was the network going to say? "Yes, it's true, Miss Couric is toast. We're all simply looking for a nice face-saving way to send her butt packing"? Not bloody likely.

The kicker in the WSJ report is its speculation that, upon leaving her current night job, Couric could be interested in succeeding Larry King at CNN. This apparently was news to both CNN and King. But it actually makes some sense if we follow recent history.

Think about it. Couric has already replaced one legendary septuagenarian male: Dan Rather, who was 73 when he got bounced from the CBS News anchor chair in March 2005 after 24 years. King is 74. Couric is a scant 51, a veritable infant in the news personality game. She's also perhaps better suited to an interview format like King's "Larry King Live" that would free her from the tyranny of dry script recitation.

Moreover, if taking King's job didn't work out, Couric might then consider giving a little shove to Barbara Walters (age 78) and snatching up her queen-bee status on ABC's "The View," or — back at CBS — supplanting Andy Rooney (age 89) at "60 Minutes." Not even "CBS Evening News" anchor emeritus Walter Cronkite (age 91) should be feeling too secure right now, as Couric may just have her eye on his house.

But any senior-bullying aside, what's plainly obvious is that Couric has chosen the wrong era to attract better than 2 million fewer viewers on average each night than her competition at NBC and ABC. The news audience, collectively eroding, is plummeting faster in the CBS universe than anywhere else. Just last week, the layoff ax claimed iconic KCBS anchors Harold Greene and Ann Martin as part of a downsize of some 160 employees at CBS Corp.-owned TV stations in 13 cities.

In this kind of recessive financial environment, you can't get away with paying gazillions to someone who isn't delivering the ratings goods no matter the celebrity cache they may tote along. If each of those 160 workers who were let go last week earned $100,000, their combined annual salary barely would match Couric's yearly haul by itself.

We might thus conclude that were Couric and CBS News to part ways in a matter of months, it would represent less a tragic defeat than a glaring example of wretched excess finally coming home to roost.