Katie Couric: Can the former TV newscaster make it as a talk show host?

Katie Couric struggled with ratings as a TV news anchor. She’s about to launch a new afternoon talk show aimed at women, but audience tastes are changing and she faces lots of competition.

By , Staff writer

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    Katie Couric sits with audience members during a taping of her new talk show "Katie," which debuts on Monday, Sept. 10.
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Katie Couric’s new afternoon talk show debuts Monday as pundits and public ask the burning question: “Since she was too chatty for evening news, will she be too newsy for afternoon chat?”

Her first week of guests include Jessica Simpson, who will talk about the challenge of losing pregnancy weight; Aimee Copeland, the 24-year-old Georgia grad student who gained national attention over the summer for losing parts of her limbs to flesh-eating bacteria; and Jennifer Lopez, who will talk about life after “American Idol.” Ms. Couric will also introduce a segment called “YOLO” (You Only Live Once), as she takes a lap around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with racecar driver Danica Patrick.

Later segments include a bucket list of to-dos, and “Women Who Should Be Famous.”

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“Katie” – broadcast live from New York with a studio audience – will be aired at 3 p.m. in most markets, produced and distributed by Disney-ABC. Couric also has a separate deal to appear occasionally on ABC News.

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The answer to how well this show does will say a lot about American TV, changing audience tastes, talk show hosts, ratings, and network income, analysts say.  

After 15 years at NBC’s “Today Show” and five years as anchor and news director of “The CBS Evening News,” can Couric’s combination of personality, perkiness, and gravitas draw viewers, especially in a schedule jammed with alternatives? Those will include former “Survivor” host Jeff Probst, comedian Steve Harvey, Britain’s Trish Goddard, and the return of veteran Ricki Lake.

Some suggest the answer may not say anything about Couric’s abilities at all.

“Maybe there is a saturation point that will nullify her success, which has nothing to do with her intrinsic qualities,” says Len Shyles, professor of communication at Villanova University. “Steve Harvey, Maury Povich, The View, The Five, Dr. Phil, Morning Joe, Imus on cable, The Today Show, Kelly Ripa. On and on. The glut is obvious. She will likely fail, not because of her, but because of the nature of the beast.”

Mr. Shyles and others feel the TV landscape has changed so much that the field is wide open for a pioneer to reinvent the afternoon talk show genre.

“Could Oprah come back in this market? Could Phil Donohue? Even Geraldo has gone to radio,” he says.

 Besides what the move says about TV audiences and tastes, analysts will be looking to see what it means for Couric, who may have to reinvent herself after five years as CBS anchor.  

Couric tried to liven up the format of CBS Evening News, but she was never able to lift it out of third place behind NBC and ABC. The others widened their ratings leads even as her broadcast won several awards, including four Emmys.

"Katie Couric’s effort to establish herself as a serious journalist will be instantly undercut when she hosts a TV talk show that covers a gamut of front-burner subjects all the way from gray hair to ‘Shades of Grey,’ a stable of suburban reading groups seeking soft-core stimulation,” says Ben Agger, director of the Center for Theory at the University of Texas in Arlington. “If one of her first guests will be Jessica Simpson, we can expect a Kardashian soon.”

Agger posits his own personal opinion as a way of showing the barrage of judgment that is likely to come her way.

“Perhaps I unfairly dislike the talk-show genre and I should stop being a snob. Or perhaps I used to like Katie and I’m disappointed in her philistinism,” he says. “We project unrealistic expectations onto cultural icons; maybe this is just her way of making a living."

Others say the move will help examine where America is on the issue of women on television. Jane Pauley, who hosted “Today,” went on to try her own show, “Real Life with Jane Pauley,” which lasted just one season.

“I think that this is the classic double bind and pigeonholing that professional women who choose careers in politics and the media face all of the time,” says Susan Mackey-Kallis, associate professor of film and media studies at Villanova University. “You're damned if you’re too feminine and you’re damned if you're not. It happened to Hillary [Clinton], it happened to [NBC “Today Show’s] Ann Curry, and now it's happened to Katie Couric.”

Part of the challenge will be not only the popular legacy of the Oprah Winfrey Show, but the changing landscape of media as well.

Besides broadcast, there are growing cable and online audiences, all chasing a female demographic in the shrinking 25-54 age range.

According to Nielsen, the percentage of women who are married has fallen from 72 percent in 1960 to 52 percent today, reducing the stay-at-home-mom quotient. Also, most of the new shows are still aimed at Caucasian viewers, despite the fact that Hispanics are the fastest growing segment of the population and African Americans watch more TV than any other demographic.

 Couric, now 55, left “The Today Show” in 2006 as one of its most popular hosts of all time to become the first sole female anchor on the “CBS Evening News.”

The new show will bump up against a crowded field of lucrative shows. The Ellen DeGeneres Show reportedly brings in $100 million for Telepictures and NBC. Dr. Phil, with the end of Oprah Winfrey (which made $300 million a year at its height), brings in $150 million per year.  The syndicated court show, Judge Judy brings in nearly $200 million a year for CBS.

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