It’s finally official: after a steady stream of rumors, Yahoo announced today that Katie Couric will be leaving ABC News, finishing out this season of her daytime talk show, and joining Yahoo, where she’ll have the title of “global anchor.” The job means that Couric will report on breaking news and interview international newsmakers on a web show, one with a wider scope than the @katiecouric web talk series she hosted while working at CBS as that network’s nightly news anchor. But while the form of the show is clear, what we don’t know yet is what Yahoo thinks that Couric can bring to its efforts to build web-native programming that will bring in significant advertising dollars, a feat companies like Netflix and Amazon have yet to pull off, favoring a subscription-based business model instead. And it’s not clear what Couric, who made her career in broadcast television, will get out of a move to Yahoo, other than the perception that she’s willing to take a risk on a new medium and a new venture.
Yahoo isn’t exactly getting Couric at the height of her popularity. When she took over the anchor’s chair at the CBS Evening News, Couric wasn’t able to make the program the leader in the ratings. And things got worse for her after her departure. When Couric launched her daytime talk show, Jeff Zucker, now the president of CNN, who was producing the program, predicted that it would pull in a 2.5 ratings share, equivalent to about 2.9 million viewers per episode — the actual number of viewers has been more like 2.1 million in the show’s second season. And worse for Couric, the Q Scores company, which measures how widely entertainment industry figures are recognized, and how favorable or unfavorable the public’s impression of them is, reported earlier this year that 10 percent of female viewers had positive impressions of Couric, while 21 percent of women have a negative impression of her. That’s a decided comedown from the moment when the fusion of Couric’s personal story, eager personality, and news chops made her a national darling.
Yahoo, in other words, is getting Couric at the low end of her value, and at a moment when, The Hollywood Reporter suggests, her brand has been blurred between the hard news and challenging interviews she seems to prefer, and the friendly, cheerful approach viewers — and guests — seem to want from her. When Sirius signed Howard Stern to a five-year contract worth $500 million in 2005, they knew they were buying his army of listeners, who could be counted on to turn into subscribers. Couric has no such army in evidence, though there’s no evidence that her deal was anywhere near as rich as Stern’s. And Yahoo plans to sell advertising, rather than subscriptions, to its digital programming. That means that the brands it’s offering up to advertisers have to be appealing. And Couric’s Q Score won’t exactly help that process.
Instead, hiring Couric — just like hiring tech columnist David Pogue away from the New York Times — seems like a move by Yahoo to prove that it’s a player by competing for the same talent highly valued by traditional media outlets, rather than by turning web-native talent into huge phenomena. That’s not an odd move in this environment. Outlets like BuzzFeed have put themselves on the map in part by poaching reporters from more established media companies.
But it’s one thing to offer up-and-comers platforms and opportunities that give them the chance to make their names, or giving established reporters and editors a chance to transition to different kinds of work. It’s another to throw cash around to have established people did the same thing they did elsewhere, rather than something particular to your platform, particularly when one of the people you’re spending money on may be out of other career options. This isn’t exactly a case of AMC promoting Chris Hardwick, who made his name in podcasting, to run a series of late-night talk shows that air after the network’s hit scripted programs, like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, recognizing that AMC could both increase Hardwick’s profile and benefit from the loyalty of his fans. Instead, the deal looks like Yahoo getting Couric’s name and Couric’s getting to leave an experiment gone wrong in a way that makes her look like she’s departing on her own terms. Showing that you’ll cut a check isn’t the same thing as proving you have a visionary plan for the future of content.
As Andrew Wallenstein, Variety’s editor-in-chief for digital, put it before the deal was finished, “After stints at CNN, NBC, CBS and ABC, maybe Katie Couric is going to Yahoo because there is simply nowhere else to go…Maybe short of faking a conversion to conservatism to join the gang at Fox News Channel, she’s going to Yahoo because it’s the only move left to make.” And maybe Yahoo is recruiting fading stars like Pogue and Couric because it isn’t confident that it can build its own in-house.