- The Washington Times - Monday, March 13, 2006

NEW YORK

Almost lost in the overheated speculation about whether Katie Couric will become an evening news anchor for CBS is the real possibility that someone else may soon sit next to Matt Lauer on the “Today” show set.

“Today” is one of television’s most important news programs — certainly the most profitable — and it hasn’t faced a talent transition since early 1997.

While NBC artfully executed the turnover from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams on “Nightly News” over a two-year period, it will have no such luxury this time. Within the next two months, NBC will know whether it has to replace Miss Couric quickly or not at all.

There’s a growing consensus within the industry that Miss Couric will leave. Ultimately, though, it’s one person’s decision, and she hasn’t dropped any public hints about whether she’ll opt for a new challenge or the comforts of home.

If she does leave, it’s a strong bet her successor will be one of four women: Campbell Brown, Ann Curry, Natalie Morales or Meredith Vieira.

“It’s an unusual situation, bordering on unique, given that Katie is one of the few bona fide superstars in the history of television news. It’s not a routine talent change,” says former CBS News President Andrew Heyward, who stressed he has no inside knowledge about what NBC is thinking.

The “Today” show history offers clear examples of how, and how not, to make a transition.

Mr. Lauer’s takeover from Bryant Gumbel in January 1997 was seamless. The two men were close friends, and Mr. Lauer was familiar to “Today” viewers as the show’s news anchor. It had no impact on the show’s winning streak, then in its early days. “Today” has won every week in the morning show ratings for 10 years, three months and counting.

Several years earlier, NBC executives provided a textbook case of a disastrous talent change when they forced out Jane Pauley in favor of Deborah Norville. They quickly minimized the damage in April 1991 by dumping Miss Norville and installing the largely unproven Miss Couric.

It’s safe to say that worked out pretty well.

Hiring a morning-show host is a tricky thing, dependent to a large degree on a hunch. It’s not like installing a new White House correspondent, for example, where you look at the track record of reporting and tapes of a candidate’s work and know what you’re going to get.

A morning-show host must be a person viewers will feel comfortable welcoming into their homes before that first cup of coffee. The person must be able to confidently interview Condoleezza Rice, then make a rice pilaf with Martha Stewart a half-hour later.

“You can’t find someone who believes that one is more important than the other,” says Steve Friedman, a former “Today” executive producer.

The biggest trap NBC can fall into is trying to replace Miss Couric with someone just like her, Mr. Friedman and Mr. Heyward agree.

“What I would try to do is figure out what core quality [Miss Couric] has that connects with viewers,” Mr. Heyward says. “In my view, it’s authenticity. People perceive her as a real person who has dealt with real issues and is not a television robo-anchor in any way.”

The executive who most likely would make the gut call in this case is Jeff Zucker, the NBC Universal chief whose career took off after he successfully produced the “Today” show for several years.

NBC has quietly exposed Miss Brown and Miss Morales to the morning audience. Miss Brown is the weekend “Today” co-host with Lester Holt, and Miss Morales is the sub news anchor when Miss Curry is off on assignment.

Miss Brown, 37, is a former White House correspondent who has covered presidential campaigns, the Iraq war and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She joined NBC in the late 1990s after a local news career that took her to Baltimore and the District.

Miss Morales, 33, a former Air Force “brat” who grew up overseas, began her career at a cable network covering the Bronx. She worked at an NBC affiliate in Hartford, Conn., before joining MSNBC as an anchor in 2002.

Miss Curry, 49, has been the “Today” news anchor since 1997. Given this role, the fact she’s not seen as the slam-dunk favorite to succeed Miss Couric may be telling. NBC recently gave her another big job, as co-anchor of “Dateline NBC.”

Miss Vieira, 52, has exhibited the versatility expected in this role. She’s a six-time Emmy-winning newswoman and one-time “60 Minutes” correspondent. At “The View” since 1997, she specializes in women-friendly topics that dominate much of morning shows.

NBC tends to prefer promoting from within.

One thing that’s important is to make a decision quickly if Miss Couric decides to leave, Mr. Heyward says. Tryouts aren’t likely to help.

“The notion of an on-air bake-off is just going to [anger] the people who backed the horse that didn’t win,” he says. “There’s going to be a ton of attention focused on this, and you’re better off using that attention and that buzz to promote the person you’ve picked.”

There already are indications that NBC is prepared to do exactly that.

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