Couric Could Be in Line for Larry King's Spot

I've got some reasonably big Larry King news here, friends, that could well affect the future of one Ms. Katie Couric, so listen up.

CNN has just re-upped the septuagenarian newsman to a new deal that will keep him at the network until 2011. This, first reported on late Tuesday, was expected, and re-upping LK to one more contract is NOT "big" news.

But this is: King did not secure a guarantee to continue anchoring the 9 p.m. hour, which -- I am reliably told -- opens the door wide for Couric when she leaves CBS after the inauguration, as she almost certainly will.

There are a couple of things that seem to be going on with Katie that everyone save the man in the moon now knows about. First, she's miserable at CBS which she thinks has stiffed her on resources and turned "Evening News" into the same old-same old nightly network news show. She wants out, but is certainly in no hurry -- recognizing, perhaps, that it's harder to score a meaningful gig if you're on the beach, and that (after all) CBS would have to eat $40 million-or-so of the remainder of her contract if it were to pull the trigger instead.

Here's the other thing: That she'd be happy to entertain an offer from CNN. Without giving Larry a lock on 9 p.m., CNN is finally laying the groundwork for a 9 p.m. succession plan and in fact, CNN appears to have the luxury to do so: Its first quarter ratings were the best in years, and the one-time whipping post of FNC is finally doing a little butt-kicking of its own. There's a simple reality factor at work here as well: King'll be 75 this November, and while we can all agree his tenure has been a remarkable one, nothing " and no one " lasts forever. Nor is anyone untouchable in this business " even Walter Cronkite, whose exit from the anchor chair was assured in 1981 when Dan Rather, then a superstar, forced the issue.

Does Katie have the same clout to move King aside? This speculation of Katie-for-Larry has swirled around for years. I remember chasing it during Katie's last two contract go-rounds at NBC, when she let it be known that she was bored and needed new challenges, including the possibility of a syndicated Oprah-like talk show launched under the aegis of NBC. She had the good sense to back away from that, but CNN beckoned, in part because Katie BFF Wendy Walker Whitworth is " "LK Live" exec producer and a real power broker at the network.

That's the background. When the Katie-out-at-CBS story broke a couple weeks ago, CNN " with remarkable haste " signed King to a new deal that will carry him through 2011. But Larry effectively was given the kingdom without getting the throne. Sure, he'll be at CNN " but at 9? The answer to that is the only one that matters.

Possible flies in the ointment of a Katie-for-Larry swap? Foremost, would she want the gig? Again, I'm reliably told, yes. Would CNN consider her "damaged" after the rough ride at CBS? I hardly think so while she could argue (with some justification) that she didn't get all the resources promised etc.

Also, Lou Dobbs. Never count Lou Dobbs out " there's no cagier, shrewder, harder-hitting inside operator in the entire business than Dobbs, who probably has his eye on 9 too.

Anderson Cooper? Why unseat a sure bet at 10? That means you've got a problem at 10 that you've gotta fix. Plus, AC's turned into a solid anchor-reporter " why waste him on David Blaine or Paris Hilton?

Christa Robinson, CNN's chief spokeswoman, said this: "Larry King is the best there is. He will be here for a long time. We are refuting in essence what you are speculating."

But did you guarantee Larry 9? "We do not discuss contracts."


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