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Is afternoon next for Couric?

It can't be long before Harvard offers an upper-level course in Katie Couric studies.

When last we left Ms. Couric, she was racing toward a June deadline with her CBS contract renewal. A brief riffle through Couric reportage available at this exact moment reveals the following (all, of course, subject to instant change and immediate nullification):

She's out of the anchor chair, no matter what. She didn't improve CBS' post-Rather metric dive one bit despite her salary. And CBS' new news boss, Jeff Fager, is reputedly not a Couric fan.

She was, nevertheless, good for the network and for the news business itself, once she overcame the absurd and almost fatal initial overpromotion. It was Couric, more than any other journalist, who affected the outcome of the 2008 presidential election.

And, as the old joke might have it, she did it "fair and square" -- with the exact right question at the exact right time asked in the exact right way.

Consensus seems to be that Scott Pelley has the inside track to be the next "CBS Evening News" anchor. Bad move. But then, the long history of men in that chair, no matter who they are, may wind up giving him better numbers than Couric.

CBS still wants her in the following capacity: A regular on "60 Minutes" (which, rather appallingly and foolishly, spurned her when she first hopped networks) and the afternoon queen of a future talk show to be syndicated by CBS a la Oprah now that Empress O. herself is about to vanish into her cable kingdom.

Assuming everyone, thus far, is on the right track about Couric's talk show future, it does leave room for interpretation.

Whatever the ratings say, she's CBS News' biggest story by far and, in fact, the biggest on TV. There wouldn't be nearly as much schadenfreude at her failure if she weren't.

She's been good for CBS News; it's CBS News, from its asinine initial overpromotion and excessive expectations, that's been bad for her. If she'd had time to find her own way quietly, she'd have done vastly better.

And I'd bet that if she'd been able to wield her Managing Editor title more decisively, she might have been able to accomplish some of what they hoped she'd do.

God knows everyone and his cousin Myrnah wants a piece of the afternoon money pie Oprah is abandoning. (Would you believe Anderson Cooper as a future daytime yakker?)

And Katie, dear Katie, seems a natural for it. But I beg to differ. As much as I've always liked her and respected her talents, I've always understood why people find her condescending and off-putting. There's a kind of plastered-on phoniness to her "perkiness" and perennial smile, which often comes across as cold by default.

I'd argue that it was always the byplay on "Today" -- Couric and Lauer and Roker, etc. -- that made her so attractive. A Couric afternoon talk show would, I think, need Regis and Kelly-type interaction to work. Alone, she's no Oprah.

What's most interesting about all this is that her effect may have nothing to do with her real nature, which may, in fact, be far warmer and more genuine and sweet-natured than Oprah's ever was.

Couric's seemingly cold "perkiness" may be just as misleading as Diane Sawyer's constant concerned-seeming "Aunt Diane" act. (Sawyer always looks to me as if she's driving a child to the emergency room.)

A lot of people's effect isn't nearly as genuine as they really are, just as a lot of people's way of presenting themselves to the world often seems far more genuine and less cruel than they actually are in life. I'd rather know the real Katie Couric any day than the "real" Oprah.

Where all this leaves "CBS Evening News" is, tragically, less interesting. But then it's hard for some in a post-Watergate era to accept that journalism itself has only finite appeal and always has. Those who grew up in the afterglow of journalism unseating a president can't help believing in a Golden Age that may never have been.

And now here comes the future of Katie Couric in Internet America to give everyone a crash course in what's REALLY what in our big Internet-driven media world. Heaven help us all, including Katie Couric.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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