As Katie Couric tomorrow enters the 30-day matching window with CBS News, during which her soon-to-be-former employer can match any offer from another company, it appears that the ex-CBS Evening News anchor has no offer on the table at the moment. That doesn’t mean that she won’t have a deal for a daytime talk show on June 5 when her deal with CBS News formally expires. But after possible suitors had been whittled to two — CBS and ABC — CBS TV Distribution pulled its offer for a syndicated daytime talk show with her over a week ago, before Couric officially announced her exit from CBS Evening News last Tuesday. Meanwhile, talks between Couric and ABC, which was the last major player to enter the fray, are ongoing as ABC is finalizing its offer. That offer is expected to include a syndicated talk show, which would give Couric the ownership and potential financial windfall she had been seeking, and not a network talker as some had speculated, so there will be no alienated soap opera fans who would blame Couric for the cancellations of One Life to Live and All My Children. Additionally, there will be a role for her at ABC News, including possibly pieces on primetime newsmagazine 20/20 but probably not the prominent role in the network’s coverage of the 2012 presidential elections as some have speculated. As a sign of the different approaches at ABC and CBS, I hear ABC News president Ben Sherwood has been very deeply involved and even spearheading the process at ABC, while at CBS negotiations were reportedly led by the head of the company’s syndicated division John Nogawski.
So is ABC now Couric’s only option, or is CBS bluffing and will use its matching right to get her for less than it was originally willing to pay when NBC was a formidable bidder? Depends who you talk to. For CBS, which was the first company to begin discussions with Couric because of her association with CBS News, there is certainly an element of fatigue as talks had dragged on for months. Additionally, word was that there was some frustration over Couric’s desire to continue to be very involved on the news side beyond the fall 2012 launch date of her daytime talk show. CBS’ offer reportedly included a syndicated talk show with CBS TV Distribution, one of the leading producers of syndicated programming, as well as a beefed-up presence on 60 Minutes and CBS Sunday Morning and three primetime specials. But that was for the next year and I hear there was a disagreement over how involved Couric should be in news after the launch of talk show, with CBS syndication executives asking her to focus on the show and revert to her old Today persona of a bubbly all-American girl, while Couric rwanted to continue juggling both. “It felt like she was just keeping her foot in news in case something with the talk show went sour,” one person close to the matter said. So about 10 days ago, CBS pulled its offer, which was first reported by TV Guide Magazine. It was the latest company to do so. Time Warner’s offer was handicapped by the fact that the company doesn’t have a station group to help with the distribution of a daytime talk show and that the news opportunities were on the ratings-challenged CNN, which I hear was not appealing to Couric and her team of advisers, which includes former NBCU CEO and Today exec producer Jeff Zucker and syndication veteran Ed Wilson, so they passed on it. But the abrupt end of the talks with early frontrunner NBC was surprising. I hear it was triggered by the rumor circulated a month ago that Couric’s former Today co-host Matt Lauer might join her on the new talk show. Word is NBC, which has Lauer locked in on Today until the end of 2012, was so miffed by the speculation — which some link to Zucker, who worked with Couric and Lauer at Today — that they pulled out shortly thereafter. That is approximately when ABC seriously entered the picture. ABC, of course, had other daytime-related matters to attend to before tackling talks with Couric: the daytime overhaul with canceling OLTL and AMC and replacing them with reality series The Chew and The Revolution. To give Couric a syndicated daily talk show, ABC will probably have to give an hour of daytime programming back to the affiliates and that would likely be the 3 PM slot currently occupied by General Hospital though it doesn’t necessarily mean that the sole soap on ABC’s daytime schedule will be canceled as it may be moved to an early time period. The Chew and The Revolution are set to take over the 1 PM and 2 PM slots in the fall and in January but the odds are they won’t both succeed, leading to a vacancy.
Sources close to Couric’s camp indicate that there is still interest by CBS and call the offer retraction as “a good ploy to protect themselves if (Couric) goes to ABC,” as CBS still has the right to match ABC’s offer. Other suggest that CBS is serious in its decision to not pursue a talk show with Couric. Whatever the truth, CBS is certain to take a good look at ABC’s offer to Couric, as her contract stipulates, before making a decision whether to match it or let her go. The situation puts ABC in a weird position: should they make a low offer now that they’re the only player and risk CBS swooping in and easily matching it or go high and possibly overpay if CBS is indeed not interested. (I hear what the suitors for Couric have been willing to offer her was $10-$20 million as an advance toward profits from her talk show.) One way or another, there will probably be a signed deal with Katie Couric on June 5.