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Katie Couric stakes a claim in daytime talk TV

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NEW YORK — "What's good is: people are interested. What's bad is: people are TOO interested, sometimes."

Katie Couric is grinning as she says this, but she isn't kidding. And she has a point.

The fact that she's about to launch a new daytime talk show (premiering in national syndication Monday; check local listings) has escaped almost no one's notice, and Couric has done her best to bring her show to everyone's attention, having thrown herself into a publicity blitz for weeks.

But there's more than pre-show promotion driving the interest in "Katie." As one of TV's best-known, relatable and highly regarded personalities, whatever Couric does is subject to scrutiny and sky-high expectations at a level that eclipses fellow freshman talk-show hosts (including Steve Harvey, who premiered this week, plus Jeff Probst and rookie returnee Ricki Lake, both kicking off the same day as Couric).

Any of the new talk shows may catch fire with viewers. But as zero hour approaches, interest in the rest of them is nowhere close to that for "Katie."

Couric is in a spotlight arguably as bright as she has ever known, maybe as searing as when she left NBC's "Today" in 2006 after 15 years of ratings domination to claim the anchor desk of "The CBS Evening News." During that five-year reign, for the first time, she proved fallible. Nothing she did could reconfigure the job to her particular strengths, as everyone, watching her with interest, came to realize.

A year ago, she signed on with Disney/ABC, which is syndicating "Katie" and employs her as an ABC News special correspondent. In the latter role, she expects to contribute on an "as-needed basis," she says. "I may be involved on election night in some capacity, and there may be some specials they want me to do." She also may fill in for "Good Morning America" co-anchor Robin Roberts, on medical leave.

But "Katie," she declares, is "my No. 1 priority, and it's going to take a lot of time, attention and energy."

With a healthy dose of time, attention and energy, can Couric transfer her America's-sweetheart appeal (as demonstrated by her stardom on "Today") to the daytime-talk world, without shortchanging the ideals she espoused at the "CBS Evening News"? Can she satisfy her serious side and her playful side, too?

"A daytime format seemed to be the best fit for my skill set," says Couric, 55, relaxing on the couch in her office for an interview. "I like interacting with people. I like conversation. I like spontaneity. There are very few places on TV where you can have all that.

"The notion of a startup was exciting," she goes on. "Having worked at networks with infrastructures and bureaucracies, I feel liberated that I don't have people on top of me saying, 'No, you can't' or 'This isn't the way we've always done things.'"

One more plus: This new venture reunites her with Jeff Zucker, in recent years a top executive at NBC Universal but, before that, her executive producer at "Today."

"That was exciting to me," she says. "We're very simpatico. We have very similar tastes. It's kind of uncanny."

But what kind of show will their collaborative tastes produce? It's a question she's been asked and asked and asked.

"What we're trying to do is take issues that are in the zeitgeist and affect people's lives, and dig a little deeper to give people some perspective," Couric sums up. Her show will typically air right after taping, "and I want to make it as timely as possible, even though we may be dealing with evergreen issues.

"There's always an intelligent way to talk about even light subjects," she adds for good measure.

Like, say, hair. That was the subject on one of several shows she pre-taped during August. (It is scheduled to air on Friday, Sept. 14.)

The hour includes a hairstyling makeover for three women. Wendy Williams, herself a talk-show host, arrives for a discussion of wigs, a subject dear to her heart and fundamental to her look.

Couric even greets the audience sporting a wig of her own — a gray wig! — that prompts an exploration of how hair color can define someone to the outside world as well as dictate how she sees herself.

That, and more, are packed into an hour that investigates "why hair rules our lives" (as Couric puts it at the top of the show) and adds up to considerably more than how-tos and froth.

It all plays out on a set that's deceptively simple and sleek. The set does not evoke a rec room, office, den or arena, as many talk-show settings do. At "Katie," it's designed to be an all-purpose forum that adapts to anything from an intimate discussion to a musical performance. It is dominated by flat-screen video screens and an interview pod with wingchair and couch that slides onstage, when needed, on a motorized track.

Unless, of course, it doesn't. Between segments of the show, there's a glitch: A jammed flat blocks the pod from being moved onstage.

Couric is unfazed.

"This is a new show and we're ironing out the kinks," she reminds the studio audience with some amusement. "Apparently our pod ran into the wall. That is not a good thing. But we're figuring it out. So please stand by."

Her message is greeted with laughter and applause as stagehands wrestle with the balky flat. A minute or two later, all is well, the pod is where it's meant to be and taping resumes with no further mishaps.

"Hair today, hopefully not gone tomorrow," Couric jokes a while later at her sign-off of "one of the more fun shows we have planned."

The day before that show, a very different episode was taped. Its subject: eating disorders.

Experts are heard from. Sufferers tell their story. But despite the grave topic, Couric steers clear of the spectacle and melodrama other hosts might well insist on.

Why the restraint?

"I don't think that people necessarily want maudlin, over-the-top-emotions-on-steroids," says Couric. "I think what they want is an honest and open conversation, and hopefully a useful one, too."

No air-date for that show has been announced.

But on Monday's premiere, guests include new mom Jessica Simpson and Couric's pal Sheryl Crow.

On Tuesday, Couric welcomes Aimee Copeland, the Georgia woman who lost both hands, her left leg and right foot to a rare flesh-eating disease. Wednesday, it's Jennifer Lopez. And on Thursday, her guests are Brene Brown, author of the upcoming motivational book "Daring Greatly" and popular blogger Jenny Lawson.

"I just hope people will be receptive to the whole spectrum of different kinds of shows that I really want to do," says Couric. "I hope that we won't tackle a superserious subject and find people aren't interested.

"Maybe I'm wrong, but I think you can be smart and engaging with a show that's not pretentious or patronizing. I happen to believe that a lot of people are looking for that."

Is she taking a big chance opting for this high road — and vowing to stick to it? Is she in danger of outsmarting her viewers, and herself?

"I've always had the attitude that 'No guts, no glory,'" she says. "But I'm not looking for glory, I'm just looking for an opportunity to continue to enjoy what I do, and do something worthwhile. So sue me!" she cracks.

Then, when her chuckling subsides, she shares an early, pleased appraisal: "It's really shaping up to be what I'd hoped it would be."


http://www.katiecouric.comEDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier