30 Most Impactful TV Newsers of the Past 15 Years: Katie Couric

By A.J. Katz Comment

To mark the 15th anniversary of TVNewser this month, Adweek honored the 30 Most Impactful TV Newsers of the Past 15 Years, spotlighting the personalities and execs who were instrumental in the industry’s incredible decade-and-a-half evolution. TVNewser will be presenting expanded versions of each honoree’s interview.

Katie Couric

  • Job now: Founder, Katie Couric Media production company; host, Katie Couric podcast
  • Job 15 years ago: Co-anchor, Today, NBC (later anchored CBS Evening News, was an ABC News special correspondent, hosted syndicated daytime talk show Katie and was Yahoo News global anchor)

Adweek: What were you doing 15 years ago, in January 2004?

Katie Couric: I was co-anchoring the Today Show. I was in the middle of covering the War in Iraq and Saddam Hussein had been captured the previous month near his home tow of Takrit. I was fresh off of a big special I did with Elizabeth Smart, remember her?  I was getting ready to trade places with Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. And I was watching Something’s Gotta Give, probably for the…oh no, because that was in the theaters. It was the first time I watched Something’s Gotta Give, which now I’ve seen a total of 127 times.

What’s your favorite professional moment of the past 15 years?

That’s an impossible question. It was like, what was the favorite meal I ate over the last 15 years? Because I’ve had so many extraordinary experiences in the past 15 years. I think one recent one that was extremely gratifying was bringing a story I covered full circle. I was in Haiti for the earthquake—was that in 2010? It was in 2010. And I met a young man who had been hurt terribly and was in excruciating pain. I was with him when they were resetting his leg without anesthesia. His name was Larousse Pierre. His mother was killed in the earthquake and he was a young teenage boy. I was able to put him in touch ultimately, I stayed in touch with him as best I could, given the circumstances. Ultimately, I got the Worldwide Orphans Fund and my friend who runs it, my friend Jane Aronson, to connect with him. She was able to get him out of a very bad situation, nurse him back to health and change his life. And I just saw him recently at the Worldwide Orphans Benefit. That was one of the high points for me, among many high points. To be able to change someone’s life.

What is the biggest way that TV news has changed over the past 15 years?

I’m holding it in my hand right now: the iPhone, or your mobile device. When you think about it, it seems almost unfathomable that the iphone came out, what, 11 years ago? Obviously, people have the information they need in the palm of their hand. Broadcast news and all kind of broadcast mediums have had to adapt to disseminating information in wholly different ways.

People who are in their 20s, like my daughters, rarely turn on a television. They do to watch streaming shows, but they get their news through newsletters, podcasts and news sites. So I think the increased competition has been the biggest change. And the fact that the atmosphere has become so fragmented. And the landscape has become so fragmented. I think this was the beginning of bifurcated news sources. I don’t think MSNBC was as “liberal” back then as it now. Certainly Fox News was providing as much affirmation as information. I think we might have been seeing the beginning of this duality in news with a distinct ideological bent.  So those I think are two of the big changes.

And of course, I don’t know when Netflix came on the scene. And DVR; you’ll have to check on all this stuff. Was this the beginning of TiVo and DVR, and people being able to watch things when they wanted to what them? So that created a different kind of competition.  Because suddenly, they could focus on something that they might have missed otheriwise, that they could spend their time watched, which created increased competition as well.

Who have you learned the most from in your career?

I think [the late] Tim Russert. You can agree without being disagreeable. You can challenge somebody and yet be respectful. You can listen and be open-minded, but also call somebody out on their you-know-what whenever necessary. And you can be who you are and be successful: You don’t have to fit into a mold.

Which of your competitors do you most admire, and why?

I definitely admire Diane Sawyer because I think she cares deeply about the heart of the story. I would say Oprah and I sometimes competed for the same story and I respect her a tremendous amount. Barbara Walters, I competed with her a lot. I was always disappointed when I didn’t get a big story because of Barbara Walters, but then I would tell myself, well, it’s Barbara Walters! George Stephanopoulos, because he is smart and steady and unflappable.

What do you know now about the business that you didn’t know 15 years ago?

That industries are more fun when they’re expanding than when they’re contracting. That there would be a huge awakening regarding gender and sexual harassment in the workplace. I didn’t know then, that whether or not anything will change as a result, remains to be seen.

What has been your toughest professional challenge during the past 15 years?

My early time at CBS, when I was under this bright white light. When I was under such a microscope – but luckily, attention turned away from me, and I could actually do my job. The attention abated, and I was able to do my job. (I like to use good words whenever possible!)

I have started my own media company, which you guys wrote about, and I’m involved in a lot of different projects, so stay tuned.

Another thing you can add to the big changes is social media. I’ll never forget when Paul Friedman, the No. 2 at CBS News, said to one of my colleagues, “I think it’s beneath the dignity of the anchor of the CBS Evening News to be on ‘The Twitter.’”