LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed CBS News executives and people close to Katie Couric, said on Wednesday she could leave her job as anchor of the low-rated “CBS Evening News” well before her contract expires in 2011.
CBS and Couric both issued statements downplaying the Journal story while stopping short of an outright denial.
The report comes as CBS continues to lag in third place in the network news ratings, far behind NBC and ABC, 19 months after Couric’s much ballyhooed debut as the first woman solo anchor of a major U.S. evening newscast — for a salary reportedly worth $15 million a year.
Couric, 51, who gained celebrity status during 15 years as co-host of America’s top-rated morning show, NBC’s “Today,” may leave CBS as early as next January, soon after the U.S. presidential inauguration, the Journal said in its online edition.
Her five-year contract is set to expire in 2011, the newspaper said, adding that it was possible Couric could survive in her job if a major news event lifted her viewership or some other shift occurred at CBS.
CBS and Couric said they have no plans to alter the evening newscast.
“We are very proud of the ‘CBS Evening News’ particularly our political coverage, and we have no plans for any changes regarding Katie or the broadcast,” the network said in a statement.
A separate statement attributed to Couric said: “I am working hard and having fun. My colleagues continue to impress me with their commitment to the newscast, and I am very proud of the show we put on every day.”
Despite the heavy promotion of Couric’s hiring and the huge amount of media attention it garnered, CBS has made little headway in its bid for supremacy among the Big Three network newscasts.
For the week ended March 31, the CBS Evening News averaged 5.9 million viewers, compared to 8.3 million for NBC’s “Nightly News with Brian Williams” and 8 million for ABC’s “World News with Charles Gibson,” according to Nielsen Media Research.
At stake in the competition is roughly $450 million in annual advertising revenue.
Following an initial boost in her ratings, Couric’s nightly audience has generally lagged well behind that of her immediate predecessor, Bob Schieffer.
He had taken over as host on a temporary basis after veteran anchor Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite’s successor, stepped down in the aftermath of his discredited “60 Minutes” report on the military service record of George W. Bush.
In the marketing blitz for Couric’s CBS debut, the network sought to promote her as a more “accessible” journalist who also possessed the experience to carry its flagship newscast. But after trying various format changes to accentuate Couric’s more casual style, the network has returned to a more traditional presentation.
The Wall Street Journal suggested Couric’s next job might be to succeed veteran TV interviewer Larry King at CNN, who is 74 and whose contract with his network expires next year.
Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte