The big question running through the New York magazine profile about Katie Couric's first nine months as anchor of The CBS Evening News, which everybody in the media was talking about this week, is her asking herself, "Why did I do it?"
I don't know how to tell you this, Katie, but it may have been the money.
At the Today Show, her employer for 17 years, she was working for a poverty level $13 million or so. Prior to signing a five-year contract with NBC in 2001, she had been making a paltry $10 million, which critics like myself saw as a case of the bosses taking advantage of the workers. GE, with all those profits from nuclear power plants and other toxic waste dumps, could have afforded a decent living wage.
Les Moonves, the headman of CBS came to her financial rescue last year with the famous "Kiss Me Kate" contract, which made Couric the first Fifteen Million Dollar Woman. Isn't there a minimum wage level in TV anymore?
The subtext of her fit of introspection into why she did it also may have been that she was tired of waking up so early in the morning. It just wasn't worth the measly $13 million to get to the office at 4:30 every morning.
I happen to know some people who would do it for a lot less. Especially since they are up already, worrying about illegal immigrants, Iraq, and the rising interest rate on their home mortgage.
The attack of public soul-searching which made Katie spills the beans about her true feelings about the golden opportunity Moonves gave her to improve her lifestyle was brought on by the fact that her jump from the morning to evening news wasn't working out as CBS had planned, apparently.
The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric during the May sweeps had the lowest rating since the Nielsen's started tracking news shows in 1987: 5.1. million viewers, down from 13.5 millions premiere week last September. Even with rival Brian Williams on vacation last week, CBS News hit an even lower bottom at 5.1 million.
How could we have made such a mistake?, CBS top management is asking itself. One clue may be Moonves. When basking in the glow of hiring Couric away from hated rival NBC, he bragged that everything he knew about news he had learned from his girlfriend and now wife, Julie Chen, the star of The Early Show and Big Brother. Chen's other major contribution to journalism was being the first to use the phrase "But first."
Besides, as network corporatethink goes, we paid her so much money. Ergo, she has to be good.
But she's not. Katie sometimes looked like a nitwit. She was worried about what kind of blazer to wear. She was asking the audience what she should say to sign off. "Can you e-mail your thoughts," she said, in effect. It was hard to imagine Walter Cronkite saying that.
Since you were asking, Katie, how about:: "I'm out of here." or " Good morning."
As much as Katie could be a pain in the ass on the air, the disaster wasn't her fault. The CBS Evening News was mired in last place for 10 years. She didn't make the network fire its star anchor, the news division president, its top producers and investigative reporters in one season before she made the jump to the sinking ship. The problem is it's a crappy show. Who needs it?
Nevertheless, they are blaming her. The show was too soft, they are saying. The show was too hard during her interviews. The network news brainiacs are off-loading all their crimes on her.
The good news reading the New York magazine profile is that Katie is apparently coming into her own now. She's starting to act like a real bitch. The story reports she's smacking people around in the newsroom. She's beating up writers because they use the wrong words.
One thing that really works on TV is authenticity. By sheer trial and error, she may have finally stumbled on authenticity by coming out of the closet and blaming the audience for her failures and other crimes against humanity. She may now be into her real feelings and personality after 17 years of playing the nice girl next door.
This new Katie could be the last hope for turning the ship around.
Meanwhile, I hear secret discussions are going on to get her back to Today because Meredith Vieira is not working out as Katie's replacement.
Moonves would be happy to unload her. Zucker would be happy to get Katie back. Meredith would be happy to go back into retirement. So would the Today audience, apparently. Ratings are down.
The only problem is Matt Lauer doesn't want her back. He's afraid she will beat him up.
Matt hates Katie, even more than he now hates Meredith. And everybody on the show hates Matt.
The other problem is there is no guarantee the NBC audience would welcome Katie back. After all, she betrayed them for filthy lucre. So that could be the next fiasco.
My advice to Katie is, as soon as the window in your contract opens, take the money and run. Do something socially useful. Start a new health channel.
Taking the money -- and staying -- is a pretty good option, too. Do a Dan Rather. Tell Moonves -- and even better Sumner Redstone whose money Moonves is shelling out on Julie Chen's advice -- that what you always wanted to be is a field reporter. They could send the kid to the DMZ in Pammunjon, Ulan Ober in Mongolia or even Afghanistan, where Afghan Dan made a name for himself.
CBS could then announce that Katie is "on assignment" or "vacation." Ratings will shoot up. Especially if they bring back Bob Schieffer, who can do the news from his leisure village. The only time the CBS evening show ratings had gone up significantly in the last 10 years was when Schieffer took over when Rather jumped the shark. Schieffer appeals to the audience for network evening news, which is the 54-to-dead demo.
If that fails, bring in Mike Wallace. He is still the greatest newsreader of all time.