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Katie Couric And Yahoo!: Two Brands Wondering What's Next

Katie Couric made her name on NBC's <em>Today </em>show, which she hosted for 15 years. Since leaving the network in 2006, Couric has anchored <em>CBS Evening News </em>and launched her own daytime talk show on ABC, <em>Katie</em>.
Ida Mae Astute
Katie Couric made her name on NBC's Today show, which she hosted for 15 years. Since leaving the network in 2006, Couric has anchored CBS Evening News and launched her own daytime talk show on ABC, Katie.

Depending on which analyst you read, Katie Couric's move to become "global anchor" for Yahoo! News is either a "bad bet" and an "awkward fit," or an "upheaval in the pecking order" that could "signal the end of old media dominance."

But for this TV critic, Couric's decision to leave a deal with ABC News for a perch at one of the online world's biggest names is something much simpler:

It's the latest move for a monster brand in search of a purpose.

According to a statement from CEO Marissa Mayer, the 56-year-old Couric will serve as the face of Yahoo! News, leading a team of correspondents "pioneering a new chapter of digital journalism." She'll also keep hosting her syndicated daytime talk show, Katie.

In a way, this makes sense. The former Today anchor's public identity, forged in the heat of 15 years on TV's most popular morning program, has always brought the promise of high visibility, fan focus and history-making reinvention to a string of landmark gigs.

But nothing Couric has tackled in the days since she was trading quips with Matt Lauer in Rockefeller Center has felt quite right: as top anchor at CBS News from 2006 to 2011, she lacked the hard news credentials the news division needed to recover its mojo after Dan Rather's flawed "Memogate" story on George W. Bush's National Guard service nearly unraveled it. After an early surge in ratings, viewership for the news program sank to some of its lowest levels ever.

From there, she moved on a grand deal with Disney-ABC, which would feature her as a special correspondent in the news division and, in a separate agreement, syndicate a daytime talk show aimed at female viewers presumably still looking for a television galpal since media queen Oprah Winfrey left syndication in 2011.

But her appearances on ABC as a news host were sporadic, including a weeklong stint sitting in for Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts which came close but didn't break the ratings winning streak held by her former colleagues at NBC's Today.

And Couric's syndicated talk show Katie has struggled to meet lofty ratings projections, as stories in the trade press quote unnamed sources blaming the host's unwillingness to pander to the middle-aged women watching television at midday.

Daytime viewers respond to hosts who seem genuine and accepting of the audience; stars like Steve Harvey and Ellen DeGeneres have soared by making their audiences feel accepted and entertained while staying true to themselves. Couric seems much closer to career women and working moms who aren't in front of a television in early afternoon.

At this stage, it's hard to know exactly what Couric's brand stands for, beyond her name recognition, big jobs and the often-sniping news coverage she generates. She was once queen of the morning news where female viewers dominate, but recent reports say her Q score reveals twice as many women have a negative opinion of her – 21 percent unfavorable compared to 10 percent favorable.

Too serious for the frothy confines of morning TV or daytime and not-quite-serious enough for the evening news, Couric has yet to find a new job where she fit in seamlessly as at Today.

Even the online videos she's done — for CBS News, ABC News, and her Katie show at various times – showcase a blandly upbeat personality with little edge or distinctive voice; a tough sell in an online world where even the biggest names must earn their attention with noise and controversy.

That's what makes her hire by Yahoo! all the more unexpected and potentially troubling.

Couric's arrival is the grandest move in a string of high profile hires for Yahoo! from old school "legacy" media outlets, like Matt Bai and David Pogue from the New York Times. It's a bold action from Yahoo! CEO Mayer – herself a rising media brand who seems to have charmed the very traditional media outlets her company will eventually make obsolete if her strategies actually work.

But Yahoo! is doing something different than Google or even Netflix, betting on a stable of in-house, non-fiction content creators to draw an audience. Google figures how to best bring you stuff other people make and Netflix offers a few high-quality original shows sprinkled in with acres of TV reruns and old movies. Yahoo! is betting that a highly-paid stable of employees will add their personal brands to create something greater.

Which once again puts Couric in the position of promising big audiences her brand may not deliver.

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Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.