Top of the Morning

01/03/2002 at 03:41 PM EST

Still, "if you have a star you pay them star money," says Gartner. Adds a former NBC exec: "She could be worth $65 million a year. You can pick a number. It really doesn't matter. They desperately wanted her."

So Couric found herself facing a happy dilemma. In between the regular cardio and weight workouts that have given her what Allure magazine editor-in-chief Linda Wells calls "the best legs on television," picking up her daughters from their Manhattan private school and faithfully attending PTA meetings, and occasionally fitting in a romantic dinner with L.A.-based Werner at the local Italian restaurant Vico's (her usual: zuppa di pesce, a $25.50 bowl of mixed seafood in broth), she had to figure out what she wanted. When Berger put out the word early in 2001 that Couric was open for offers, she was flooded with suitors: Sony, DreamWorks, FOX, Viacom and Disney, just to name a few. "Everyone and their mother had a meeting with Katie and Alan," says one studio executive.

CBS held out the possibility of working for 60 Minutes (one of Couric's dreams, says a former colleague). AOL Time Warner (the parent company of PEOPLE) was especially interested in Couric to host a syndicated talk show. To that end, says an exec from a rival company, AOL Time Warner proposed "a Web site, a show on CNN, a column in TIME magazine and the kitchen sink too." DreamWorks offered the entire kitchen. In an effort spearheaded by chiefs Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, the studio designed and built a set for a syndicated talk show and handed Couric's reps a multimillion-dollar check she could cash if she agreed to sign.

At times the woman whose parents wouldn't let their children buy candy at the movies was uncomfortable with the over-the-top come-ons, say friends. Still, as Couric told The New York Times, "some of the offers did intrigue me. I felt I owed it to myself to see what else was out there, and there were some exciting-sounding things." According to friends, Couric often turned to her savvy beau, who coproduced such megahits as The Cosby Show, Roseanne and 3rd Rock from the Sun, to help guide her through her many offers. "He's a brainiac," a Couric colleague says of Werner, who had separated from his wife of 30 years, Jill, 52, shortly before Berger introduced him to Couric in May 2000. "You have to be a brainiac to be around Katie." There was much to mull over. Was the comfort of her Today family and a familiar routine really worth getting up every day before 5 a.m. -- and knowing that's the easy part? "It's a grueling schedule," says executive producer Jonathan Wald. "The pressure to worry about tomorrow and the next day never ends." On the other hand there is no less pressure to succeed on a new daytime talk show, where the failure rate is 90 percent and the subject matter often turns tawdry. Location was a factor too: Any number of Los Angeles-based jobs would have eased the logistics of her romance with Werner, but was that worth displacing her children? In the end Couric chose to stay put, says a friend, "because NBC is her home, because she grew up here, because anything else would be out of the realm she's comfortable in." In other words, she went with her gut. "The prospect of leaving NBC," explained Couric, "made me a little sick to my stomach."

-- KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
-- K.C. BAKER, RACHEL FELDER, REBECCA PALEY, DIANE HERBST and ELIZABETH MCNEIL in New York City, JENNY HONTZ, FRANK SWERTLOW and ROBYN FLANS in Los Angeles and J. TODD FOSTER in Washington, D.C.

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