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Reports of Katie Couric's planned departure from the “CBS Evening News” quickly sparked - and appropriately so - talk about who might fill the anchor slot most famously held by Walter Cronkite.
But another big aspect of the story is whether Couric, in effect, will set out to succeed Oprah Winfrey, who is slated to leave her powerhouse daytime talk show next month.
How Couric’s third act plays out will tell us whether anchors and hosts still matter much – in TV news and talk – post-Cronkite and soon, post-Winfrey.
Her reported decision to leave CBS – nearly 20 years to the day after she was named co-anchor of “Today” – already says a lot about the changing media landscape. Couric apparently believes there’s a more prosperous path in trying to follow the queen of daytime talk than staying put in a once-vaunted news anchor chair.
She probably knew coming into negotiations that CBS was unlikely to continue to overpay her the reported $15 million a year she's pulled in since 2006. Couric apparently sees more dollar signs in the light of day – Winfrey's empire, after all, earned her the ranking of Forbes’ most powerful celebrity last year. Couric also might see an opportunity to establish herself as the No. 1 player in the daytime realm, after five years of finishing behind NBC and ABC in the nightly news game.
If she goes the Winfrey route, Couric could face formidable competition in daytime veteran Ellen DeGeneres, and another journalist, Anderson Cooper, whose new show is set to debut in the fall.
Couric, though, seems built for the job, and might add some gravitas to the fluff. Her 15 years on the "Today" show gave her facility in bouncing easily from light to heavy, going from cooking segments to interviewing heads of state in between banter with Al and Matt. Her direct interviewing style can be effective, especially when a seemingly simple question turns out to be surprisingly difficult (see Palin, Sarah).
The newswoman is no comedian, but she’s shown she doesn't always take herself seriously. We've seen additional softening of the edges in recent days, including a Couric cameo on "Glee," a Funny or Die video in which she investigates whether it’s possible to “shake your sillies out,” and a recent colonoscopy PSA for AOL that takes a comic turn amid the serious message.
The moves now appear to have been part of a campaign to raise Couric’s profile and lighten her image as she prepared to leave CBS News. Last month, she joked with David Letterman, who chided her for considering an exit. "Once you take that anchor chair, that's what you do," he said. “Really?” she replied.
Letterman, who left NBC nearly two decades ago after Jay Leno got "The Tonight Show" gig, should know better than most folks that things change in the broadcasting business. There are no more Cronkites, like there are no more Johnny Carsons. There will soon be no more Oprahs.
There are still places for news and talk shows – more than ever, thanks to cable and the Internet. But the days of one-host dominance appear to be over.
After leaving TV, Carson disappeared from public life. Winfrey, of course, will dedicate herself to her OWN cable outlet.
Cronkite, the serious newsman, showed a lighter side in retirement by recording the part of the narrator in the 1995 revival of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" that starred Matthew Broderick. The current Broadway version of the musical comedy, featuring Daniel Radcliffe, features a voice-over by none other than Cooper.
Couric knows from hard-earned experience knows that any future success in broadcasting will require a lot more than trying. The Katie Show will go on, in some form, with a script yet to be written.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.