Intense speculation swept two network news divisions Monday that Katie Couric, cohost of NBC's top-rated morning show Today, is about to jump to rival CBS and become its evening news anchor, a move many in the industry see as a gamble.
Two people familiar with the situation told Reuters they believed Couric, 49, has reached a tentative deal with CBS that would make her the first woman installed as the sole permanent anchor of a major network evening newscast.
But they said no formal agreement had been hammered out. Couric, who has cohosted NBC's highly profitable Today show for 15 years, remains under contract at NBC until late May.
Representatives for CBS and NBC, controlled by General Electric Co., declined comment, as did Couric's personal publicist, Matthew Hiltizk.
"The answer is inside her head, and nobody is there but her," one network insider said.
Media reports of CBS executives seeking to lure Couric away from NBC first surfaced in January 2005. Dan Rather stepped down as CBS Evening News anchor two months later after coming under fire for his botched 60 Minutes II report on President Bush's military record.
Veteran correspondent Bob Schieffer, 69, took over for Rather on an interim basis, and the third-ranked network evening newscast has since shown ratings growth, while the ABC and NBC newscasts have lost ground.
Schieffer has insisted he does not want to keep the anchor job, and CBS chief Leslie Moonves has repeatedly expressed eagerness to revamp the evening newscast to lure younger viewers.
Buzz about a possible Couric defection gained steam again Monday as Television Week reported a deal for her to move to CBS News had been "completed in principle" and an announcement of her NBC exit could come as early as this week.
The New York Times reported a similar story on its Web site late in the day, saying CBS's courtship of Couric had "moved close to a conclusion." It quoted NBC News president Steve Capus as saying in an e-mail note: "If the day comes that we are faced with a change [at Today] we will operate from a position of strength."
Stories speculating about Couric leaving NBC also ran in the Los Angeles Times and New York Daily News.
The Wall Street Journal reported last month that CBS had offered Couric about $15 million a year to permanently replace Rather and contribute to 60 Minutes.
The Journal said NBC has offered Couric, who currently earns more than $16 million a year, a raise and other perks to stay put, though the CBS anchor job would be more prestigious.
Keeping Couric in place is widely seen as crucial to efforts by Today to hold its own against ABC's Good Morning America, the No. 2 network breakfast show, which narrowed the ratings gap between the two last spring.
Today, which has recently widened its viewer margin over GMA again, has ranked as the No. 1 network show in morning ratings for more than a decade, making it one of NBC's most important assets. Cohosted since 1997 by Matt Lauer, Today currently generates about $250 million in profit for NBC annually.
Independent news analyst Andrew Tyndall said CBS would be taking a big chance hiring Couric as anchor at a time when the Evening News is gaining viewers under Schieffer.
"She hasn't got any track record in the evening," Tyndall told Reuters, adding that he saw no "natural affinity" between the audience that Couric would likely draw and the viewers tuning in now to see Schieffer.
"She might alienate as many viewers as she attracts," Tyndall said. "It's an awful lot of money you're spending on her, so just to break even you've got to increase your audience by a significant amount."
Likewise, he said, NBC would save on her enormous salary by letting her leave Today, enabling that show to become more profitable even if its ratings slipped.
Speculation on possible replacements for Couric have centered on two NBC News colleagues, Campbell Brown and Natalie Morales, as well as Meredith Vieira, cohost of ABC's talk show The View.