April 5, 2006

NBC remains tight-lipped about ‘Today’

By Paul J. Gough

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Now that Katie Couric has
announced her historic decision to join CBS News, NBC is faced
with a big decision of its own: how to chart the future of

Despite reports that a deal with "The View" co-host (and
former CBS News veteran) Meredith Vieira was imminent, NBC News
executives stressed that they weren't going to make an
announcement about a co-host Wednesday. Nor would they talk
about the future of "Today" publicly, preferring instead to let
the Couric news settle in before unveiling their plans.

Whether that's Vieira, "Today" show news reader Ann Curry
or substitutes Campbell Brown or Natalie Morales -- or someone
else not yet mentioned -- it wasn't entirely clear Wednesday.
But what is clear is that NBC's NBC Universal parent wants to
find a co-host that will help keep the ratings (and
morning-news money) flowing at "Today."

Couric told her "Today" audience she was leaving the show
at the end of May after 15 years -- longer than any other
anchor of the 54-year-old morning show -- to join the CBS
"Evening News" and "60 Minutes." She will become the first sole
woman anchor of a major U.S. network evening newscast.

Talk around the Radio-TV Correspondents Assn. Annual Dinner
in Washington, D.C., last week was that NBC News already had a
plan in place. NBC demurred but others conceded long ago that
it was likely that Couric would leave and that Vieira, Curry,
Brown and Morales were in the running.

Co-host Matt Lauer's stock, already high at NBC, has risen
in recent years, and he has scored a number of exclusive
interviews, including last week's with West Virginia mine
disaster survivor Randall McCloy. Lauer will take a leading
role no matter what, observers say.

"It's hard to imagine being here and not having you sit
next to us," Lauer told Couric on "Today." "We're thrilled for
the fact that you are taking on a new challenge."

The stakes are incredibly high, even if "Today" has in the
past year beaten off a challenge from ABC's "Good Morning
America," which was 40,000 viewers away from catching "Today"
when then-executive producer Tom Touchet was fired. Under
executive producer Jim Bell, "Today" regained its momentum and
is now a million viewers ahead of "Good Morning America."

"Matt's awfully good at the moment, and any flaws that they
had in terms of getting stale, they've ironed that out with the
new executive producer," notes network-news analyst Andrew
Tyndall. Tyndall doesn't think there's much of a challenge from
"Good Morning America," which he said has made its charge and
had reached a sort of ceiling.

"If they were going to get more they were going to get it
by now," Tyndall said.

Tyndall is surprised by the talk of Vieira as a
front-runner, saying that it would be "entirely out of
character" for NBC Universal to hire her.

"They have always been very careful to groom replacements
in-house, teach them the house style and basically have them
fit into the ongoing mechanism that exists already," Tyndall

Matthew Felling, media director of the Center for Media and
Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., thinks "Today" will take a
hit from losing what he calls "the Michael Jordan of morning
news." While he recognizes the argument that "Today" won in the
ratings last week with Couric on vacation, he said "there's a
difference between having somebody on vacation and having
somebody flat-out gone. The 'Today' show is appointment viewing
for a large constituency ... for at least the promise of Katie
Couric to come."

Couric's departure may indirectly help CBS' "The Early
Show," which has been mired in third place since it began in
the late 1990s. "Today" veteran Steve Friedman was recently
hired to boost the show's fortunes, working with senior
executive producer Michael Bass. That is seen as a signal that
CBS intends to not only compete at 6:30 but also in the
morning, which has never been a strong suit for the network.

Tyndall said that no matter who is chosen, Lauer will be
much more highlighted than he ever has before.

"Matt has really blossomed. He's come into his own,"
Tyndall said. "I think Matt can carry the show while they break
in a new co-host."

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter