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As Katie Couric considers options, she should think about recapturing her morning glory

December 21, 2010 |  1:21 pm

COURIC

With less than six months before her current contract expires, speculation is heating up on whether Katie Couric will sign a new deal to keep anchoring the "CBS Evening News" or move on.

There probably will be no shortage of choices for Couric if she decides that she wants out of the nightly news game. CNN would surely jump at the chance to land her, and MSNBC would probably give her a long look too. Then there's daytime television. Syndication companies, including the one owned by CBS, would be willing to drive a truck full of cash up to Couric's Upper East Side pad.

One move that probably isn't being considered by Couric or her camp is a return to morning news. Allow me to make a case for it. CBS' "Early Show" has been languishing in third place forever. The network recently announced plans to replace anchors Harry Smith and Maggie Rodriguez with the show's Saturday team of Chris Wragge and Erica Hill. While the move was spun as a way to bring some fresh blood to the shows, it is also no doubt a money saver.

If Couric, who made a name for herself at NBC's "Today," took over CBS' "Early Show," the ratings would take off. Would she topple her old friends at "Today"? Probably not. But the show would instantly become more competitive and who knows, could make a run at ABC's "Good Morning America" for second place.  Bigger ratings would also mean more ad dollars.

Yes, she's been there and done that. However, a case can be made that the nightly newscasts are no longer as powerful as they once were. The audiences for all the evening newscasts have been in decline for decades. While they are still generally bigger than the morning shows, the gap has shrunk. The majority of Americans no longer gather around the television every night at 6:30 for their news the way they did when Couric, 53, was growing up and there were three networks and few other options.

Morning shows are also more important to the networks. They are the cash cows for the news divisions while the evening news programs are struggling.

Couric makes about $15 million a year in her current job. When she joined CBS, it was in third place and that's where it remains. That it hasn't risen out of third can't be blamed on Couric. She inherited a lot of baggage from the end of the Dan Rather era and faced an impossible task.

Still, given the ratings, which have continued to decline, and the diminishing importance of the nightly news game, maintaining that paycheck could prove challenging.

In the morning, though, where there is plenty of room for CBS to grow, it may be easier to rationalize a big salary for Couric or structure a deal with lots of incentives that would give her the chance to stay at her current level. Also, it might be easier for CBS to turn around its morning show than the evening news. Certainly the scrutiny of Couric would be less in the mornings than it has been in the evenings. By staying tied to CBS News, she could continue to do work for "60 Minutes" as well.

Syndicators will try to woo Couric with promises of hundreds of millions of dollars. But given how much she has probably banked over the last two decades, is risking the stature she's built as a journalist worth tossing away for a few more bucks? No, not every daytime show has to be Jerry Springer or Dr. Phil, but more often that not, that is what happens.

If I had to make a prediction, my money is on Couric staying put for a few more years, which would give CBS time to find a successor.

But if she truly wants a new challenge and the chance to be a savior, she should consider setting her alarm clock a few hours earlier and giving mornings another go.

-- Joe Flint

Photo: Katie Couric. Credit: CBS

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