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Couric Gets a Talk Show: Is She the Right Woman for the Right (Day)time?

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That thing that people kept saying would happen has happened: Katie Couric, formerly of NBC’s Today Show and CBS’s evening news, will host a syndicated talk show for ABC starting in fall 2012. Having left the morning and washed out of the evening, it’s now up to Couric (and her former producer Jeff Zucker, will work with her again) to see if the afternoon is literally and figuratively a happy medium for her. (She’ll also do work with ABC News starting this summer, but the real deal is the talk show.)

There are at least two questions bound up in the move: (1) Is it better, nowadays, to be the next Oprah than to attempt to be the next Cronkite?; and (2) is Couric the woman to do it?

As to (1), the answer is certainly yes, though it’s a bit of a trick question. I’m not saying that daytime talk is greater or more useful than hard news, nor that Oprah is a greater figure in broadcasting than Cronkite was. (Though I’d say she is at least a more singular one.) Further, it’s really probably only possible to be a “next Oprah” in the sense of “a very successful talk-show host.” There may never be a single media figure with the kind of broad cultural influence as Oprah, or, if there is, he or she may be doing something entirely different from hosting an afternoon talk show.

But at least it’s more likely today than being another Cronkite. Couric ended up being a poor fit for the evening news in terms of turning around CBS’ ratings, but even if she were highly successful, she would not have had the kind of influence a Cronkite did; nor does Brian Williams, nor does Diane Sawyer and nor, even if he is a fantastic hit, will Scott Pelley. Yes, more people watch the evening newscasts than any individual cable news show. But cumulatively, people get their news from far many other sources, and influence is no longer about simple numbers anymore. A cable news commentator with a passionate following is likely to influence more people than a network anchor reading news. (Even if some, like Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann, find their shows are not as long-lived as Cronkite’s newscast.)

In daytime talk, though, Oprah has shown that it’s at least possible to have the kind of intensity of following that shapes lives, for better or worse—that reaches into relationships and culture and spirituality. And of course, if you want to get crass about it, there’s simply much more money in a very successful daytime show; Couric was famous for her $15 million deal at CBS, but if she owns a piece of a hit show, that could be worth much more in the long run.

But is Couric the one most likely to do that, to step in and capture the audience left behind by Oprah? I have my doubts, not just because she’ll have to wait a year before trying. People like Oprah—true media phenomena—tend to make themselves in that mold by coming out of nowhere. Couric, on the other hand, already has a long-established image, one that arguably has taken some hits over five years struggling at CBS. That she got the show demonstrates that you can still cut a great deal by selling a network a known quantity, but my gut tells me that any “next Oprah” is more likely to be an unknown quantity.

I don’t want to sell her short; her strength has always been her ability to connect informally with the home audience, which is what made her so successful on Today, and which is something a talk host needs. But ironically, just as she was labeled as lacking the gravitas for the evening news, it could be that she’s now identified as too much of a news person to make that kind of daytime talk-show connection.

I can’t help but think that Couric is just another example of a TV person who was in the right job for her—Today—but made the mistake of trying to “move up” to a supposedly “higher-tier” job because, well, that’s just what you’re supposed to do. Compare Jon Stewart; countless people have suggested that the next step for him—because what loser would just keep hosting on basic cable?—would be to do a network late-night show. Which would be a big “move up” for him, and a horrible, horrible idea.

That said, I don’t want to seem to pile on Couric, who I think gets a lot of knee-jerk knocking: ratings aside, I thought she was just fine reading network news, even if she was wasted in the job. And it’s possible for her to be a reasonable success without becoming a “next Oprah” at all. In any case, good on her for dusting herself off and moving on. Maybe the third time (and timeslot) will be the charm.

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