By Gary Levin, USA TODAY
NEW YORK - It's a hot August afternoon, but the air-conditioned set near Lincoln Center is cozily intimate. Katie Couric is chatting up actress Susan Sarandon in a chummy just-us-girls discussion of their shared traits: Both are celebrities, single, of a certain age and recently dating much younger men, prompting discussion of a dreaded descriptor: cougar.
"I wonder if that bugs you as much as it bugs me," Couric says, wondering why there's no equivalent phrase for older men with trophy girlfriends. "Dirty old men?" (She settles on "sugar daddies.")
The knowing gal talk marks the last of six test tapings for Katie, Couric's foray into the treacherous world of syndicated daytime talk shows, starting Sept. 10. Comedian Steve Harvey and Survivor host Jeff Probst also are joining the daytime club, Ricki Lake re-enters the genre, and CNN's Anderson Cooper is overhauling his struggling second-year show.
But the stakes are especially high for Couric, who's looking to reinvent herself after a 15-year run atop NBC's Today and a far less successful, five-year stint as the anchor of the CBS Evening News. This time her employer is Disney's ABC, trotting out Katie as its first new syndicated talk show since Tony Danza's 2004-06 effort.
"I'm excited and nervous," she says of her first project taped before a live studio audience, even if said audience is a manageable crowd of 144. "It is like standing on a stage in your underwear a little bit, even though people have told me to imagine everyone else is in theirs."
Who's her role model?
That's easy. "Obviously the closest person is Oprah," she says, quickly adding, "I don't want to be the next Oprah; I could never be the next Oprah. But the mix of subjects and the guests and the topics that appeal to her are most closely the things that appeal to me. If I had to say who I relate to most in this landscape, it's her."
Couric's new show is a hybrid. While most daytime shows can be pigeonholed to a specific genre - variety (Ellen), medical advice (Dr. Oz), topical chats (The View), relationships, confrontation (Jerry Springer), courtroom, games and soaps - hers combines social issues with celebrities, and serious topics with fluff. Some shows will be devoted to a single topic; others will have multiple segments; and recurring features will include You Only Live Once, a bucket list of to-dos, and Women Who Should Be Famous.
"I don't think there really is a typical show," she says, though "I'm very interested in social trends." Test tapings ranged from an hour on dating violence to another on women's obsession with their hair. Next week's premiere features Jessica Simpson in her first post-pregnancy TV interview, along with Sheryl Crow, who wrote the show's theme. But Tuesday's guest is Aimee Copeland, a Georgia college student who lost her limbs to a rare, flesh-eating bacteria. Katie promises future visits from Barbra Streisand, Jennifer Lopez and Sofia Vergara.
Though Sarandon managed to promote two upcoming movies and her local ping-pong club - as Couric bested her in an on-camera match - she also talked about being single and roles for older actresses, and brought her two dogs along for a cameo appearance.
"I don't want necessarily to have this be the eighth stop on a junket for a movie," Couric says. "Celebrities are accomplished people ... they're very interesting, if given the time to talk about their passions and their careers and their perspectives. Ashton Kutcher's brother has cerebral palsy; I'd rather talk to (him) about what that's been like and what needs to be done to help people. There's a lot more to many of these people than you see in a 30-second snippet on an entertainment show."
Or on Today, which this year has been eclipsed by ABC's Good Morning America after a 17-year winning streak, or even on the evening news. She welcomes the chance to go in-depth.
"One of the frustrations for me on the Today show, and particularly as time went on, the interviews were three, four, five minutes long; I had to get very good at synthesizing things and making sure I was extracting the most important points," she says. "That was often really challenging. I don't know how many times I said, 'Can you quickly tell me?' or 'We're almost out of time,' or 'Before we go to commercial break,' just to get a guest to really spit it out quickly. There's so many nuances to a subject that are never addressed in a format like that."
All the newcomers are vying for a slice of the shrinking pie left by Winfrey, who ended her 25-year run last year averaging 6 million viewers, still almost twice as large as the current crop of top-ranked talk shows.
For Couric's show, the issue will be "meeting expectations," says analyst Bill Carroll of station adviser Katz Television Group. She's a known star, and unlike most shows that air at different times on a wide variety of stations, hers will appear in similar midafternoon time slots, often at 3 p.m. ET/PT, and mostly on ABC affiliates. "If she's as successful as Ellen, Oz or Phil, I think everyone would be quite pleased with that," he says.
Jeff Zucker, who helmed Today, rose to NBC Universal CEO and is reteaming with Couric as her producer, concedes "audiences are so diminished across the board, it's hard for any new programming to get a grip." But he believes Couric's skills translate well to the daytime audience.
"She's just as much at ease talking to Susan Sarandon as she is talking dating violence, and there's not a lot of people like that," Zucker says. "What makes her a very good fit for this day part is her ability to do soft and hard all in one show, and her personable way of interacting with the audience. She has a very winning personality with people, and that hasn't been seen in a long time."
That personality does not include sharing intimate details of her life, often a cost of entry to talkers seeking crucial "relatability" with female daytime viewers. (It was a factor in the quick demise of a 2004 talk show from another beloved Today anchor, Jane Pauley, and might have hurt Cooper.)
Though she asked Sarandon about dating after her split from longtime partner Tim Robbins - "How does someone like Susan Sarandon date? You can't go on Match.com," she asks during the show - Couric sidesteps any discussion of her own life.
"Only when it's relevant and only when it's a natural part of the conversation," she says off camera. "If we're talking about dating over 50, I might say what my attitude is about it. I'm not going to talk about the date I had the night before. I want to talk about my own experiences, but I don't want to overshare."
She did share about her tenure at CBS, after CEO Leslie Moonves hand-picked her to succeed ousted anchor Dan Rather. The five years were marked by low ratings (except for her first week, she couldn't manage to boost the Evening News out of third place, where it remains) and internal strife.
"Ultimately I'm very proud of the work I did," she says, but "really tinkering with the format of a newscast might have been more difficult than initially thought by everyone. In hindsight I probably should have examined that more carefully: Could you really change the format in a way that it would capitalize on my particular skill set, which is doing interviews, interacting, being more spontaneous, being a little more casual. Nobody has a crystal ball, but I wish I'd been a little more circumspect about the possibility of doing that."
Zucker says the new show, which will be taped at noon and air around the country within a few hours, was initially conceived to be heavily topical, focusing on news of the day, but that will no longer be an emphasis.
"By the time we're on, the morning shows will have been on, Kelly (Ripa) will have been on, The View will have been on, and the all-day Internet" all mine that territory, "so there's very few places to stop and look at something in a more in-depth way."
Apart from her show, Couric has been named a special correspondent at ABC News, co-hosted a week of GMA and will do a special in connection with the CMA Awards in November. Otherwise, plans are fluid. "If I can help on election night doing something, I'm happy to chip in," she says. "If there was a huge story, God forbid another 9/11, I'd be there to help. But right now this show is my life."
After the taping, Couric spent several minutes answering questions from the audience (all but four were women, including two who live-blogged the taping). Someone asked who her "dream guest" would be. (Kate Middleton, Couric answered, though "I think she's getting too thin.") Another asked if she plans any more invasive medical procedures like the colonoscopy she had on Today. ("I thought about getting a Pap smear on television," she said. "Kidding!")
One thanked her for a politically damaging Sarah Palin interview, a highlight of her run on the Evening News. ("I've gotten a lot of feedback on that," she said even-handedly; "I thought it was a very fair interview.") And one tie-clad college student thanked her for pursuing a "smart" show amid the daytime clutter.
That doesn't mean viewers will watch. "Everything's a crap shoot," Couric concedes. "All you can do is give it your best shot; try to do something of quality and of meaning; try to be purpose-driven, not to sound too much like the self-help section of Barnes & Noble; try to contribute and add to the conversation. It's anyone's guess how well a show like this will do."
And unlike the ramp-up to her evening-news tenure, marked by massive hype and millions in advertising, "We're not going in saying, 'This is the greatest thing, we're going to be the most talked-about show.' We're not overpromising, I guess is the best way to put it," she says. And if it doesn't work? "That doesn't mean that it won't be fun trying."