Syndication and Distribution

Stations See Ghost of Jane Pauley in Couric Daytime Show

Say syndication debutante faces road to success that has proved difficult, but not to underestimate star's wattage 6/06/2011 04:56:54 PM Eastern

A straw poll of station general managers, consultants and other local TV insiders reveals attitudes to be mostly ho-hum at the news of a Katie Couric-hosted daytime show debuting in 2012 -- invoking the efforts of another former Today host who ventured into daytime television, and found it a rocky road. A half dozen station insiders, in fact, mentioned Jane Pauley by name -- and her short lived 2004 Jane Pauley Show -- when discussing Couric's odds for breaking out with a new talker.

"I'm cautiously optimistic, but in the back of my mind, I have to remember Jane Pauley," says Bill Lamb, president and general manager at WDRB-WMYO Louisville. "We had high hopes for that, and it turned out to be anything but successful."

Details of Couric's new program are scant. No showrunner has been announced, though her old Today executive producer Jeff Zucker, last seen running NBC Universal, will be involved in the as yet unnamed show. The program is a logical fit at 3 or 4 p.m. Station folks' biggest concerns are that the odds are so stacked against first-run syndicated shows these days, and that no one knows for sure if the host will be the warm Today-era Couric, the serious CBS Evening News anchor Couric, or a hybrid.

"If it's overly political and newsy, that's not the emotion heart of Katie Couric," says one local TV veteran who asked that his name be withheld. "Being way too newsy would worry a lot of people."

Station executives will be in Las Vegas later this week to discuss programming options at the inaugural ProMaxBDA Station Summit. A Summit spokesperson says Couric will not be represented in Vegas.

Disney wasted no time in talking the show up to potential station partners. An email went out the afternoon of June 6, announcing the show and calling it a "a very sellable, news-lead-in asset being brought to the market." Disney characterized it as a "huge opportunity" for stations.

Stations may have a different view of it. While Couric was derided, perhaps unfairly, for supposedly lacking the all-important "gravitas" required for evening news, many sources contacted Monday said that, after almost five years of reporting hard news around the globe, she may be deemed to lack the soft touch required for daytime. "It's been five years since we saw Katie-Next-Door," says the unnamed station veteran of Couric's morning TV personality. "People have moved on-there are plenty of other talk shows and channels to watch."

Couric, and her new venture, have a few key things going for it. Sources said Robert Iger, Disney president and CEO, is emphatic about the show. (Couric will also appear in ABC News programs, starting this summer.) The program will launch in September 2012 with the eight ABC owned stations on board, good for almost 23% of the country. It will air at 3 p.m. on those stations, which include KABC Los Angeles and WLS Chicago.

"That's a huge advantage," says Dan Modisett, vice president and general manager at WLBT Jackson. "They're not starting from scratch."

(ABC also revealed that it will return the last hour of its daytime network block to affiliates no earlier than September 2012; it added that it "continues to support" General Hospital, and plans to launch The Chew this September and The Revolution in January 2012.)

The gap between Couric's Today run on NBC and her daytime launch will be several years shorter than Pauley's, which will help. And while stars like Megan Mullally have been cruelly rejected by daytime viewers in recent years, Couric is an A-list star, which will make for giant initial sampling. "A lot of people have tried it, but few have succeeded," says Danny Thomas, president and general manager at KOAM Joplin. "Katie's got a lot of daytime television experience and a lot of credibility as a journalist. If anyone's got a shot to make it, Katie is sure to be one of them."

Couric's debut on the CBS Evening News desk in September 2006 also garnered huge initial tune-in, but she could not sustain it.

Another hurdle for Couric and Co. is the big push stations have made in recent years to break free from large licensing fees and launch more local news, which gives them much greater control of their content-and their inventory. According to a study from RTDNA and Hofstra University, stations averaged five hours of local news per day in 2010-a record, and 24 minutes more than the record set in 2009. Dozens of stations have launched 4 p.m. news, either to take Oprah Winfrey's place, or to compete with the Oprah station in their market.

It doesn't leave a whole lot of room for new acquisitions. "Stations have less shelf space, which makes it even harder to break through and be a success," says Modisett. "The odds are definitely not with her."

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