There's only one Katie Couric - and now she's in Israel
The 'biggest fish in the American TV news pond' comes to Tel Aviv to cover Barack Obama's visit.
A polished, multi-millionaire, American woman in a gray pants suit, subtle makeup that highlights her blue eyes, and a winning smile is not an unusual sight in the executive lounge on the 17th floor of Tel Aviv's Hilton Hotel. But this particular woman is none other than Katie Couric, who is referred to as "the biggest fish in the American television news pond."
Just like Winfrey is simply "Oprah," Americans young and old just call her "Katie." And there is only one Katie. She spent 15 glamorous years as the host of "The Today Show," the NBC network's morning news program, where she achieved unprecedented ratings records. Viewers accompanied her during her time there through all her joys and sorrows, including parting from her husband and the father of her two daughters, who died at the age of 42 of colon cancer, and from her sister, the senator, who was struck down by pancreatic cancer. Katie became "part of the furniture in every American home," as she describes herself, before breaking out in her famous guttural laugh.
She recalls going to her high school class reunion and everyone wanting to get a picture with her, as if she were Mickey Mouse or something.
"People on the street feel as if they know me, as if they know who I really am, and I guess they do, in a way. There is not much difference between my television persona and the real 'me.' I am not a 'brand.' I'm a person. In a morning show you get to develop an almost intimate relationship with your audience. They invite you into their living room or kitchen or their bedroom. You become a part of their lives."
The pressure was intense
"I loved my time on the morning show," says Couric. "I enjoyed the opportunity to show many different aspects of my personality. To interview Yasser Arafat and then talk about shoes and paint pottery. It was a delight."
But Couric, 51, caused a tremendous media shakeup when she decided to give up the delight and turn down an offer of $20 million a year, for "just" $15 million a year and the opportunity to make history. In September 2006, she defected to the CBS network and became the first woman in the history of American television to anchor a network news broadcast alone. Her move was a news event in and of itself: Couric was hyped as if she were the messiah who would bring salvation to the entire television industry, and sparked great expectations on one hand, and a chorus of deafeningly loud skeptics on the other.
Her opponents claimed she is too nice, too sweet, that her too-short skirts exposed legs that are too pretty, that hard news is not her cup of tea, and that in any case her salary is inflated. The dignified interviews she held with world leaders, with kings and heads of state, and even with John Kennedy, Jr. in the last interview he gave before he died, are ignored. Her detractors insisted on remembering her interview of Elmo, the "Sesame Street" character and the animated puppets (in a letter to children published on the Internet, Couric acknowledged that Elmo was her favorite interviewee, even though he ate her hair).
A short time after her debut on the evening news program broke ratings record (close to 14 million viewers), the revitalized news' program's ratings started plunging and finally leveled off at a worrisomely low level - and in last place among the evening news broadcasts of the three leading networks.
Couric's attempt to instill warmth, humor and a wink into the broadcast did not go over well, and she went back to the old, distant and traditional presentation format of her predecessors, including concealing her legs behind a desk. Last April, The Washington Post reported that if there was no radical turnaround, Couric and CBS would part ways after the U.S. presidential elections in November, or at the very latest in early 2009, that is, three years before the end of her contract. The woman who lent her voice to the animated film, "Shark Tale," found herself surrounded by sharks.
The glee over her misfortune was not long in coming and it is hard not to avoid thinking that many lay in wait for Couric and wished for her failure. They expect to see a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, she said last summer to New York Magazine, but added that she would not give them that pleasure.
In Tel Aviv yesterday, she offered the following informative monologue: "I have no doubt in my heart that I made the right move, accepting the CBS offer. I would have regretted it otherwise. It's true that the pressure was immense and the expectations almost impossible. One person cannot perform such miracles and transform a whole network on his own.
"It's also true I'm not doing today exactly what I've been brought to do, and that my chance to express myself is fairly limited in the 22-minutes format, but I still enjoy my work, I think it's important and fascinating, and do believe we can make a change with time, bit by bit.
"Unfortunately I have found out that many viewers are afraid of change. The glory days of TV news are over, and the media landscape has been dramatically changed. News is available now for everyone, everywhere, all the time, and everybody fights for the last pieces of the shrinking pie. The corporate pressure and the ratings terror are intensifying all the time, and the situation is not simple. I find myself in the last bastion of male dominance, and realizing what Hillary Clinton might have realized not long ago: that sexism in American society seems more tolerated than racism. Of course there shouldn't be a competition between sexism and racism, and both should be equally unacceptable. In any case, I think my post and Hillary's campaign are important steps in the right direction."
Couric says there is no truth to the rumors that she will replace Larry King on his CNN interview program. People like to make up all kinds of things, she says, adding that she reads about it in the paper just like everyone else.
She'll be back
Couric also reads in the paper about her romance with Brooks Perlin, an entrepreneur and champion tri-athlete who is 17 years her junior. They wrote a lot less about Larry King's marriage to a woman who could be his granddaughter. That's how it is when you're a celebrity woman who won't give up attending the premiere of "Sex and the City," guest appearances in "Will and Grace" and "Austin Powers," and other perks that come with fame.
More than anything, Couric is proud of her public campaign to increase cancer awareness and the importance of early detection of serious illnesses. She underwent medical exams on the air, and is very excited about a major event she is organizing, in which the three large American networks will join in September for a day of special broadcasts devoted to the fight against cancer.
"If I could save even one life, I have done my job," she says.
This is Couric's first visit to Israel, to cover Barack Obama. "He's a fascinating man. I'm here also in order to get a look into his foreign policy."
And she promises to return another time.
"My mother is Jewish, but I've been raised as a Presbyterian. I'm interested in finding out more about these roots."
She is also curious about the various scandals involving Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and admires Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of whom she says: "She's an impressive woman. Is she popular in Israel?"