Thirty-five years ago, Barbara Walters left her job on the Today Show at NBC to become co-anchor with Harry Reasoner on ABC's nightly news half hour. ABC had offered her the then unheard of salary of a million dollars a year to take the anchoring job. NBC had the right to match the offer, and keep Ms. Walters, but passed.
A few years later, after Barbara proved her value, I asked Dick Fisher, an NBC News Vice President, why they had let her go. He told me that NBC had researched her Q Scores, and found that considerably more people disliked her than liked her. But, he added, that NBC had now discovered that although being liked was good, being disliked was just as good. (Think Howard Cosell.) The on-camera people you don't want to hire are the ones that the audience doesn't care about one way or the other.
Whatever NBC discovered then, they've forgotten about now. Bill Carter, in Monday's New York Times, recounts the struggle between NBC and ABC for the rights to Katie Couric's services when she launches her own daytime talk hour next year. According to Carter, the Couric team "believed the network [NBC] had made a strong effort to woo her, including use of an elaborate PowerPoint presentation of the virtues of its syndication proposal and a video urging Ms. Couric to 'come home to NBC,' the effort foundered." Carter went on to write that "Ms. Couric, in one of the world's worse kept secrets, is said to announce on Monday that she will sign with ABC..."
Why did NBC not succeed in its efforts? Again, quoting Mr. Carter, "NBC, meanwhile, was taking its own steps to distance itself from any suggestion that it had lost out on Ms. Couric." They said they'd never made an offer to Katie, which her side acknowledged, and "emphasized privately that their internal research showed her to be too unpopular." For unpopular, read her Q Scores were not so good. "Harry Schafer, the Executive Vice President of Q Scores, which monitors the popularity of celebrities, said Ms. Couric's score had declined since she began on the CBS [network] five years ago..."
The Q Scores struck NBC again. Once more, the network lost the most important female TV journalist of her generation because Q research indicated her unpopularity -- thirty-five years ago, Dick Fisher told me that NBC would never make that mistake again, and maybe NBC's statements about Q Scores are just sour grapes, but there's no way I can stop myself from thinking that some networks never learn.