Moonves' Best Choice


The favorite guessing game these days in the network news business is who will replace Dan Rather at the CBS Evening News. While everyone waits for the inevitable fallout from the investigation into his notorious 60 Minutes piece on George Bush's National Guard service, speculation abounds on who will get his anchor chair.

One scenario gaining commerce among industry cognescenti is that CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves will name an interim placeholder—The Early Show co-host Harry Smith, Face the Nation moderator Bob Scheiffer or 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley—until he can land a superstar to take over. If that's the tack he takes, what I hear is that the big name he's most likely to court is Katie Couric, arguably the most incandescent of all the stars in the news constellation.

In 2002, the Today co-host signed what may have been the richest deal in network news—reportedly worth about $15 million a year. That pact still has about 18 months to run. Rather vacates Evening News in March. Moonves would have to wait only a tad more than a year to get his superstar. And it's not as if there are a lot of alternatives out there: Virtually everyone in the news pantheon who's younger than 60 is tied up even longer than Couric or simply doesn't want the gig. Diane Sawyer, who also has about 18 months remaining on her deal, told New York magazine she wasn't interested. And two other great picks, Couric's NBC News cohorts Matt Lauer and Tim Russert, each have years left on their contracts.

That leaves Couric as Moonves' best choice. Swiping the Today co-host would be a move right out of his playbook. When he took the reins of the then-moribund CBS entertainment division, he opened the checkbook and signed such megastars as Bill Cosby, Steven Bochco and Bette Midler. The resulting shows didn't produce any hits, but Moonves had sent a message to the industry: CBS was in it to win.

After years of struggling, the entertainment division is on top, and now Moonves has the opportunity to fix the one part of his network that still lags behind the competition. Prying Couric from her secure roost at NBC would certainly give him the sort of firepower with viewers that CBS Evening News has lacked for years, but it would also send a broader message that the news division itself is moribund no more. Couric would be a draw for other top talent, who currently are reluctant to make the leap to a perceived also-ran.

Moonves could easily justify the $20 million or more that he'd have to pay Couric: Aside from the ratings jolt she'd almost certainly give the evening news, she could also be deployed to do a raft of prime time specials and contribute to 60 Minutes. Twenty mil? Hell, David Letterman makes more than that.

Moonves also wouldn't mind roughing up Today. Credit for the show's success isn't Couric's alone—Lauer, Al Roker, et al, deserve props for making the dominant wakeup show a $450 million money machine. But without Couric, the franchise potentially takes a serious hit.

Beyond a multimillion-dollar raise from her current salary, the attraction for Couric would be to say “adios” to those brutal morning hours and reinvent herself after 14
years at Today. There's the rush factor, too. She'd have the chance to be the main player in the reinventing and reinvigorating of a legendary news operation, the top dog in a position that has always been the province of men. Couric's able agent, Alan Berger, says that, with a year and a half left on her contract, “there's nothing to talk about.” Moonves may be thinking differently.

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