ABC Announces Deal With Katie Couric
Her Syndicated Talker Gets ‘General Hospital’s 3PM Slot

When Conan O’Brien began conversations with TBS in the spring of 2010, he had one condition that was non-negotiable: he would consider doing a show for the cable network only if the man whose time slot he would be taking over, George Lopez, stayed on. Word is TBS had been considering cancelling the modestly rated Lopez Tonight at the time but, in their quest for O’Brien, they decided to keep Lopez and moved him to a different time slot. ABC was in a similar position in its pursuit of another former NBC star, Katie Couric, giving her the 3 PM time slot occupied by the soon-to-be-only surviving ABC daytime drama, General Hospital. The difference is that the network wouldn’t commit to GHl continuing on the network when the Katie Couric show launches in fall 2012.

“We are not announcing the cancellation of General Hospital,” Anne Sweeney, president of the Disney/ABC TV Group said today, but also added, “It is important to look at daytime like we do at primetime — it really is about eyeballs, and we will go with the shows that have the most viewership.”

Given that the network just committed to two new reality series, The Chew and The Revolution, to replace cancelled soaps One Life to Live and All My Children, it is probably difficult for ABC to guarantee the return of General Hospital next season. That would give the new reality shows a 50-50 chance at best to go to second season before they have even premiered. But, given the high mortality rate for new series, it is unlikely that both series would continue beyond their first year. And the smart money is on General Hospital probably continuing. Still, the uncertainty may create alienation among soap fans toward Couric who, despite the fact that it’s entirely an ABC decision, would be perceived as the person responsible for the cancellation of General Hospital. To avoid possible backlash, ABC should announce a renewal of General Hospital next spring, after both The Chew and The Revolution have premiered and well before the September bow of the Katie Couric show.

As for the show, it will be topical, which is what Couric was known for on Today, with a scaled-back celebrity component. Couric’s deal with ABC, whose initial term is for 2 years, will pay her $10 million as an advance toward profits from the syndicated talk show. (For a successful daytime talk show, profits could be as high as $100 million to $300 million a year.) The show is expected to shoot about 39 or 40 weeks of originals a year at a production cost of about $1 million a week. Couric owns the show, probably in conjunction with executive producer Jeff Zucker, with ABC getting a hefty producing and distribution fee. Because early frontrunners NBC and CBS eventually pulled out, I hear ABC, which initially had tried to get Couric for a network daytime talk show, was able to make the deal that it wanted as there was no bidding war in the final stages.

I also hear that CBS, which had the right to match Couric’s offer under her recent deal with CBS News, didn’t attempt to do so and pretty much sat on her ABC pact until its window expired this past weekend. The moment Couric was free and clear, ABC stepped in and made its best and final offer, and the deal was closed soon thereafter.

Couric will start at ABC on August 1. In addition to working on staffing up her daytime show, she also pans to jump right into her duties at ABC News, which she said may include stints on any shows, including Good Morning America, Nightline, World News and 20/20. “I’ll be reporting for duty for anyone that would have me,” Couric said, adding, “The opportunity to be a part of such a vibrant news division was extra appealing to me.” Couric also said that she hopes to also be part of ABC’s coverage of the 2012 Presidential elections, including on election night. I hear the importance for Couric to keep one foot in news was a deterrent for CBS, which was looking for her to focus entirely on her daytime talk show.

Couric said she liked the idea of returning to ABC, the network where she started off after college as an assistant changing the ribbon on the Teletypes. She called ABC “the best fit” among her options and stressed strength of ABC’s O&O stations and their commitment to local news. That commitment led to many of the O&Os replacing the departing Oprah Winfrey Show, which airs at 4 PM in most markets, with local newscasts/talk shows. Sources indicate that it is theoretically possible that, if those shows don’t get traction this fall, the Katie Couric talk show could be a contender for the Oprah slot in 2012. That would certainly be great news for General Hospital fans.