Katie in the afternoon: You be the judge

Katie Couric’s coming to daytime but no one knows how she’ll do (Photo: Disney/ABC)

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, June 11, 2011 — A lot of people want to know lately: How will Katie Couric do on daytime TV?

My answer?  I have no idea.  It’s not because I’m at a loss for words or can’t quite generate an opinion.  I’ve never had those problems.  Just on the face of it, I think that generally speaking, the odds don’t favor her making a big splash with a daytime talk show.  There are just too many variables afflicting daytime television these days to state with certainty that she’s a slamdunk to emerge with a hit talk show on her hands.

Not that it’s impossible, but this is a time of day that is seriously in flux nowadays as far as television is concerned.  Based on everything that’s going on now in daytime, this new Katie Couric talk show is a huge gamble that could go either way.

Here are the factors at play, in no particular order, as Couric prepares to enter the daytime arena about 15 months from now:

1) What exactly is daytime television?  One thing it’s not: A place where any former network news anchor has ever set up shop and succeeded.  A personality with Couric’s news background might be expected to attract newsmakers as guests, for conversations about stories or subjects in the news.  The problem with that: No one’s ever attempted that in a syndicated afternoon talk show.

2) The cable news channels own that kind of news/talk on weekday afternoons.  They’ve owned it ever since the 1990s, when the O.J. Simpson trials, the Clinton impeachment, and stories such as the Elian Gonzalez saga and the 2000 presidential election recount riveted viewers in afternoons.  Broadcast networks began to notice: These “real-life” soap operas were stealing their audiences.

3) So maybe there’s an opportunity for Couric, a newsperson, to siphon off some of the audience for news/talk in the afternoon.  Maybe, but is that audience really big enough to sustain her show?  That’s doubtful.  It should be noted that Anderson Cooper is poised to do the same thing — start an afternoon talk show.  So it’s clear some people in the TV business think the afternoon is ripe for this kind of thing.

4) But is the afternoon audience ripe for it, whoever they are?  Sure, everybody’s focusing on Oprah Winfrey leaving daytime, and then, theoretically, leaving an opportunity for someone like Couric to come in and grab the “serious” afternoon TV viewer.  But are there really enough of them?  Take a look at daytime TV — Oprah was an exception.  Most of the shows on daytime are low-rent judge shows and talk shows like “Maury” and “Jerry Springer” (and yes, Ellen Degeneres holds on somehow, with ratings are that pretty low, but apparently just enough to keep her show profitable).  Will the audience for all these other shows suddenly flock to Katie Couric?  Probably not.

5) Katie’s no Oprah.  And that’s the crux of the matter.  Even Oprah’s audience was in decline, and she’s Oprah.  That’s probably why she decided to leave daytime syndication and stake her future on cable TV.  Judge Judy was beating her in the ratings and she knew it.  The question is: Do people like Katie Couric?  Once upon a time she was America’s sweetheart at “The Today Show.”  Then, something happened — I don’t know what it was, but nowadays she doesn’t seem as beloved as she once was.  In fact, that’s an understatement.  In some quarters, Couric is so polarizing a personality that she’s on par with Sarah Palin in the kinds of reactions she draws from readers of blog posts like this one.

6) Daytime is so unpredictable these days that even the traditional soap operas — the long-time backbone of daytime TV — are on life-support.  Under the circumstances, it’s just too chaotic to figure out whether Katie Couric can come along and plant her flag on this shaky ground.  Fact is, she’s a very capable broadcaster, but the savior of daytime TV?  Who came up with that idea?

Contact Adam Buckman: adambuckman14@gmail.com

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