In case of Couric, Vieira and possibly Lauer, three do not make a trend
With Katie Couric likely exiting her gig as anchor of CBS' evening newscast and "Today" co-hosts Meredith Vieira and Matt Lauer possibly wondering about how long they want to stay in their gigs with NBC, it'd be easy to think there must be something bigger going on in network news.
In journalism, three of anything is often used as a sign of a trend. But just as a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, an anchor leaving is sometimes just an anchor leaving.
With Couric, making the move away from NBC's "Today" to CBS' "Evening News" in 2006 was a big gamble. She wanted a new platform and to put herself on par with the legends of the news game who had held the chair before, including Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley.
CBS, in turn, wanted Couric to put a fresh face on a struggling broadcast. The last years of Dan Rather were mired in scandal regarding his reporting on George Bush's military service. Bob Schieffer did an admirable job stepping in after Rather, but he was not the face for a new generation of news viewer that CBS was hoping to attract.
Unfortunately, the hype about Couric was so high it was impossible for her performance to match it. As the first woman to solo anchor an evening news show, Couric herself became a story and perhaps unintentionally a distraction. Her clothes were often critiqued as much as her anchoring chops. She was barely in the job a year when whispers started that she'd leave before her contract was up. Those whispers eventually became shouts. Couric may have contributed to some of that speculation herself by participating in a few of the stories about her happiness with her gig at CBS.
This is not to say outside factors are the sole reason for the continuing struggles of CBS News with Couric at the anchor desk. She was not a good fit for that role and the newscast itself didn't adjust well enough to her strengths as an interviewer.
At a time when news divisions are challenged to make ends meet and find the resources to cover stories, having a $15-million-a-year anchor also seems to send the wrong message about what's important. That CBS stayed in third place didn't help in the analysis of that investment.
CBS CEO Leslie Moonves had made clear that the big paychecks would be gone and Jeff Fager, the executive producer of "60 Minutes" who is now also chairman of CBS News, seems more interested in a more meat-and-potatoes approach to news.
Now, another reality having little to do with Couric is that the business of the evening news is on the decline. The TV networks have struggled to come up with a format that is more than telling people what they've already watched on cable, read online or tweeted about. A generation that grew up on evening news at 6:30 is now growing old and a new generation does not share that same viewing habit or is even home at that time to watch.
With regards to Vieira and Lauer, their reasons for thinking about the next move have nothing to do with Couric's plans to go to daytime TV or about the current TV news environment. Vieira has made no secret that she puts her family first as her husband continues to struggle with multiple sclerosis. Her perspective is why people close to "Today" say she and Lauer get along so well. There is very little jockeying for position or fighting for airtime between them. She took on an impossible job in succeeding Couric and "Today" barely missed a beat. There are plenty of people available to fill her slot including Ann Curry.
Lauer's contract is not up until the end of 2012, so "Today" executive producer Jim Bell has plenty of time to find a replacement for him should he decide to leave. If he does, don't look for Lauer to also try for a daytime job or another news anchoring gig. People who have worked with Lauer note that while he is a hard worker, having a bigger platform for himself for the sake of a platform is not a key motivator.
The morning shows remain the cash cows of news divisions, so getting the right people in front of the camera is crucial. NBC has made mistakes in this in the past when Jane Pauley was moved aside for Deborah Norville. Audiences didn't warm up to Norville, which cleared the way for Couric.
It is very easy to look at the possibility of three major personalities all deciding to move on and decide there is a bigger story here. There is no shortage of academics ready to agree in return for a prominent quote.
But that doesn't make it so.
-- Joe Flint
Photos, from top: "Today" show hosts Meredith Vieira and Matt Lauer with Ted Williams, right, the homeless voiceover personality (credit: Reuters); Katie Couric (credit: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images).