Katie Couric, who has read the evening news on CBS for five years, left the safety of her Manhattan studio yesterday for Baghdad to report on progress in Iraq eight years after the US-led invasion. It is the kind of assignment that is meant to remind viewers that highly paid anchors are more than just pretty faces.
This may be moot for 54-year-old Ms Couric, however. Recently anointed the 22nd most powerful woman in the world by Forbes by virtue of her stewardship of the CBS Evening News – above both Melinda Gates and Madonna – she is reportedly on the brink of surrendering to poor ratings and throwing in the towel. Already, the focus of speculation has turned to what she will do next and who will replace her.
It should not have turned out this way. It was David Letterman, the veteran late-night man on CBS, who reminded Couric when she appeared last month on his show that American news anchors are expected to "ride into the sunset" with their jobs. "Once you take that anchor chair, that's what you do," he said. Among those he doubtless had in mind was the late, great Walter Cronkite, also of CBS News.
Couric, moreover, was seen as a mould-breaker when she debuted at CBS in 2006. Defecting from NBC after 15 years co-hosting the breakfast Today Show, she was the first woman to anchor a network evening news bulletin alone. Her mission: to lift the show from its number three spot behind both ABC and NBC.
If ratings are the final arbiter of success, however, the appointment of Couric, who has never shaken off her reputation as a "perky" presence on TV as against one with the kind of gravitas associated with news anchors, has not worked. Her programme is still third in the ratings. Indeed, audience numbers in the first quarter of this year were worse than at any time for CBS since 1992.
It is a source of continuing frustration for CBS, which historically dominated serious news programming. After Cronkite came Dan Rather, who relished reporting beyond the studio; the network is also still home to 60 Minutes, the current affairs show without peer in the US.
Neither Ms Couric nor her representatives have publicly confirmed that she is to leave her position. Little, however, has been done to quash the speculation that it will happen when her current $15m-a-year contract expires on 4 June. The Associated Press news agency has reported her imminent departure as fact.
"We're having ongoing discussions with Katie Couric," Sonya McNair, a CBS News spokeswoman, said. "We have no announcements to make at this time. Until we do, we will continue to decline comment on rumour or speculation." However, in an interview with the New York Times, Ms Couric came close to conceding that change was afoot. Challenged about reports that she has been talking to her old NBC boss, Jeff Zucker, she replied: "We talk a lot and, yes, we've been discussing the possibilities. That's true."
Those possibilities would appear to include, above all, a return to daytime television as the host of her own syndicated chat show. The timing would be propitious, if only because next month will see Oprah Winfrey drop the curtain for the last time on her syndicated show as she focuses on running her new cable channel, OWN. Still on the dial will be Ellen DeGeneres, but the departure of Winfrey leaves a gaping hole.
Another "news" person experimenting with TV talk in America is the former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan. Morgan has helped CNN overtake rival MSNBC in the primetime ratings war. He also has more viewers than anyone else with their own primetime slot on CNN, an early feather in his cap. If Couric eschews the daytime syndication option and remains at CBS, she and Morgan could find themselves competing head to head.
Her departure from the anchor chair would delight the conservative right and Tea Partiers, who still blame Couric for helping to derail Sarah Palin in 2008 with a series of probing interviews. Some will see the glass ceiling reconstituting itself in the news business that is still mostly male-driven.
There are no women among those now being tipped as her likely successor, with Scott Pelley, a widely respected correspondent with 60 Minutes, emerging as the favourite.
Rome Hartman, Couric's first executive producer when she went to CBS, says she should hold her head high. "I don't think it's right to think of it as, or call it, a failure," he said. "There are people who love Katie and those who don't love her, and that was a factor. But it was the overall dynamics. There was a rock that we couldn't move and I don't think it would have mattered who we would have put in there."
And Ms Couric may want to ponder this. Her fortunes – monetary and otherwise – in the world of syndicated chat might not be so terrible. Oprah and Ellen are respectively numbers 3 and 10 on that most powerful women list.
The Katie Couric story
Shortly after throwing her notes in the air in jubilation, a celebratory martini was thrust into Katie Couric's hand when she finished her first broadcast for CBS Evening News in September 2006. She had just become the first woman to solo anchor a weekday evening news programme on a major American network – a coveted title.
Born in Virginia, Couric, 54, started her career as a desk assistant at the ABC broadcasting network before working her way up, enjoying stints at CNN and NBC along the way. However, it is the last four-and-a-half years at CBS, which saw her interview countless top US figures including President Obama and Sarah Palin, that has cemented Couric's position as a household name.Reuse content