Pundits seem to be falling all over themselves to compare Katie Couric to Oprah Winfrey. Are we out of line to suggest they should be looking to Barbara Walters instead?
Ms. Couric and ABC announced yesterday a new pact that will give the now-former "Today" host and "CBS Evening News" anchor a syndicated daytime perch (guaranteed to run at 3 p.m. on ABC's eight owned-and-operated stations) as well as a steady contributing gig to the rest of ABC News. So interested does ABC appear to be that it has placed Ms. Couric's as-yet-unformed talk program in a slot currently occupied by the network's last remaining soap opera, "General Hospital" -- a move that could well saddle the long-running medical serial with a "do not resuscitate" tag.
All of this takes Ms. Couric well beyond Oprah. Which isn't to say that she is guaranteed to be at the helm of a daytime-TV empire in a decade's time. Not at all. Launching a new daytime program these days is tantamount to hell on wheels, what with the decline in the once-reliable couch-potato crowd from the '60s and '70s that used to stare at early-afternoon boob-tube. Plus , Ms. Couric's new show won't launch until 2012 -- ample time for Ellen DeGeneres, Dr. Oz, the women at CBS's "The Talk," Judge Judy, and anyone else who wants to put a stake in the ground (Anderson Cooper is starting a new show) to consolidate audience and grab their share of viewers feeling empty after Ms. Winfrey's departure a few weeks ago.
But like Ms. Walters, Ms. Couric has a bigger grab -- and gab -- bag in play. Under terms of the ABC pact, she will also be a member of the ABC News team, recently made smaller by layoffs. With new chief Ben Sherwood at the helm, ABC News has to make more with less, a feat that 's easier to accomplish when the fewer people you have on staff have a heightened fame quotient. Beginning this summer, ABC said, Ms. Couric "will anchor specials, contribute interviews, participate in special events coverage and bring her many talents to bear on some of the most important and interesting stories of the day."
That makes her sound a lot like Ms. Walters. Barbara Walters is an executive-producer of "The View," and continues to contribute all over ABC, but has in the last few years begun to pull back. She announced in 2010, when she was 80, that she would cease doing her popular pre-Oscar specials. It's not hard to imagine Ms. Couric, perhaps, trying to carry this torch anew, yet at the same time contributing to "Nightline," "World News" and more.
Now ABC has plenty of other news talent, but viewers may not warm to seeing Diane Sawyer, Christianne Amanpour or even George Stephanpolous tackling the lighter, frothier topics of the day ("Good Morning America" experience aside). Enter Katie. Like Barbara, she can ask a celebrity what sort of tree they might be, if indeed they were a tree, and not look as if she's giving away her news cred.
ABC will have to watch its new acquisition. Launching her talk show will take a lot of work, and the inclusion of former NBC Universal honcho Jeff Zucker is likely to add a level of politics to the proceedings that some Disney executives might like to avoid.
And Ms. Couric's publicity team hasn't done her any favors during her tenure at CBS News.
The constant spate of stories about Ms. Couric looking to get out of her contract, frustrated by the evening-news format and CBS's inability to make the radical changes it suggested it would, began to grate over time. If Ms. Couric doesn't find satisfaction in her new ABC venture, will the same stream of stories start to trickle out? And what effect will they have on the delicate double task of managing a talk-show launch among dozens of affiliates and inserting a new popular personality to a staff already populated with many of them?
Incubated properly, Ms. Couric could prove to be the personality that takes ABC News into the future, a new Barbara Walters for an era that may not have one. Left to fume and fuss when bumps in the road surface, however, ABC's new Barbra Walters could just be another Baba Wawa, which won't serve the network or its parent company well at all.
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Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.