(The Root) — Katie Couric has spent most of her career being known for her perky disposition and ability to transition seamlessly from interviewing a celebrity about a new movie to discussing a politician’s latest campaign. She is not exactly known for being a thought leader in the never-ending national conversation on race.
But on Tuesday Couric eschewed the lighthearted celebrity-focused fare that has become the staple of most daytime shows and waded into the decidedly nonlighthearted territory of racial profiling. Couric devoted an entire episode of her self-titled talk show, Katie, to race in America.
The move was decidedly a risk. Although the syndicated show launched to strong ratings, it has since struggled, in part because competition in the daytime talk-show field is more substantial than ever. Reality star Bethenny Frankel, comedian Steve Harvey and entertainer Queen Latifah have all recently launched shows. Even Kardashian-clan matriarch Kris Jenner recently tried to get in on the act, to dismal reviews and even worse ratings.
This could explain why Couric decided to wade into such potentially dangerous and controversial territory on Tuesday. While Couric’s show on race was a departure from traditional daytime talk shows, and was therefore a big risk, it was a risk that will likely pay off.
Some argue that the problem is there are too many daytime talk shows, but a better argument could be made that there are too many of the same kinds of shows. It seems that practically every show is a carbon copy of the other. A friendly B- or C-list celebrity sits down to promote his or her latest project, the audience might get to play a game or two, the audience is given something for free and then perhaps a needy viewer will be graced with some amazing act of generosity that is meant to make everyone watching go “awwww.” There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but how many versions of that format does TV need?
What you won’t usually see on any of these new shows is the most popular format in the history of daytime television: the Oprah format. Oprah Winfrey’s long-running, award-winning show wasn’t a success because she gave away cars. It was a success because although people like my grandmother watched to see her give away cars, people like me watched for her compelling segments on domestic violence and sexual health — topics that are largely overlooked in today’s sunny daytime-TV marketplace. Dr. Phil, Oprah’s successor, does tackle serious topics, like abuse, but that is the hallmark of his show. Oprah’s show worked because programming that made you think and made you feel good was its hallmark. No one has been able to effectively replicate that formula. But with her latest show, Couric proves that if anyone can do it, she can.
Couric had talk-show host (and Obama critic) Tavis Smiley serve as a co-host. The episode highlighted interracial couples and featured an interview with the parents of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant. But Couric’s most effective moment was when she inserted herself into the debate over stop and frisk, a policy ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge for its disproportionate use by the New York City Police Department against young black and Latino men.
As a white lawyer who supports stop and frisk sparred with political commentator Marc Lamont Hill, who is a stop-and-frisk critic and racial-profiling victim, Couric said the following: “We don’t experience on a daily basis or just even on a weekly basis walking to a drugstore or being in a neighborhood and being stopped just because we’re white, and so it’s very difficult for us to understand what it’s really like.”
Closing the show with a conversation with Ebony magazine Editor-in-Chief Amy DuBois Barnett and actor Boris Kodjoe — who appeared on one of the Ebony covers featuring black celebrities and their sons wearing hoodies in honor of Trayvon Martin — Couric said of the discussion of race, “It’s a huge problem with many layers, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be chipping away at those layers little by little.”