Is Katie Couric poised to bolt? -- We address rumors that the NBC anchor is heading to CBS

CBS News president Sean McManus is no international man of mystery, but it’s obvious he’s got something to hide. At a Jan. 18 press conference in Pasadena, McManus refused to confirm reports that he was trying to lure Today‘s Katie Couric away from the post she’d held for 15 years to anchor the No. 3-ranked CBS Evening News — but he didn’t necessarily deny it, either. The mealymouthed exchange went more or less like this:

Reporter: ”Do you have any timetable at this point?”

McManus: ”I do…there are a number of different timetables.”

Reporter: ”Will it be someone from outside CBS?”

McManus: ”Probably.”

Reporter: ”Any chance you’ll make an announcement before Katie’s contract expires in May?”

McManus: ”I don’t have a timetable.”

Reporter: ”I thought you said you had a timetable!”

McManus: ”Oh, a timetable I can discuss.”

We’ll spare you the rest of the tap dance. The fact is, it’s television’s worst-kept secret that CBS is making a serious play for the 49-year-old Couric, whose reported $65 million, four-and-a-half-year contract with NBC expires in May. The real mystery is whether she’ll accept the high-profile berth previously held by Dan Rather and, more importantly, whether Today will let her get away.

No matter what, multiple insiders say that the No. 1 morning show already has a contingency plan should Couric assume the CBS nighttime news post temporarily held by 68-year-old Bob Schieffer. Though NBC News traditionally promotes from within, that hasn’t stopped rumors that Today might try to replace Couric by poaching the competition — one surprising name that has surfaced is Charlie Gibson from ABC’s Good Morning America — or venturing outside the news business to find another plucky partner in crime for Matt Lauer. The stakes are high. Not only is GMA nipping at its heels — there’s less than a 700,000-viewer gap between the two shows — Today has reportedly generated $250 million in annual profits over the last few years. (A spokeswoman for the show declined to comment.)

”The tradition at Today has always been to go for a journalist first, then turn them into celebrities,” says Andrew Tyndall, an independent research analyst who monitors the news business. ”Just having a pretty or famous face without the chops would dismantle the entire format of the show.”

Which is why promoting in-house candidates like Today weekend co-anchor Campbell Brown or MSNBC anchor Natalie Morales seems the likely route — if NBC Universal TV Group CEO Jeff Zucker can’t convince his long-time colleague and friend to stick around. Zucker, a former Today exec producer, has publicly said he hopes Couric will stay for ”many, many years to come,” even as her public persona has taken a surprising turn for the worse. Press reports about her behemoth salary have done nothing for her golden girl reputation; nor did a scathing New York Times article in April 2005 that described Couric as a ”mercurial diva” whose relationship with her co-workers is strained. Worse, her popularity with fans — known in industry circles as her Q rating — has dropped considerably. In 2001, 24 percent of those surveyed who knew Couric said she was their favorite morning anchor. That number is now at 19 percent. (GMA’s Robin Roberts, by comparison, clocks in at 23 percent, followed by Gibson and Diane Sawyer at 22 percent and 21 percent, respectively.)