By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 7, 2006
Moments after being introduced yesterday as the new co-host of the "Today" show, Meredith Vieira observed: "I had 20 years of news where I never said anything; now every other word out of my mouth is 'orgasm.' "
NBC has found its morning woman.
Rather than project a false bravado, Vieira said: "I'm crazy. One moment I'd be excited, the next I'd be . . . literally crying on the couch, saying, 'I don't know if I can do this, what if I fail, I don't know if I can handle the hours.' "
At the news conference, 30 hours after Katie Couric announced she was leaving "Today," Vieira displayed the frank talk heard on ABC's "The View" (where she is leaving as co-host), the zippiness of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" (where she may or may not continue as host) and the news savvy of a former "60 Minutes" correspondent.
After being introduced by NBC chief executive Jeff Zucker, Vieira said the idea of her joining the show "was conceived in the back seat of Jeff's car." She said Zucker picked her up in an SUV with tinted windows last October and, while driving her the few blocks from "View" to "Millionaire," broached the idea of her joining "Today" -- which shows how early he was planning for Couric's possible departure to anchor the "CBS Evening News."
Her reaction? "I really thought you were going to skew a little younger, since I'm pretty old." Vieira is 52.
Later, Vieira had dinner at the apartment of her future co-host, Matt Lauer. "It was like going on a blind date and you really like the guy," she reported.
Before signing the deal -- described by knowledgeable sources as being worth about $40 million over four years, with options for an extension -- Vieira had to resolve her concerns about the impact on her family. She has three teenagers and a husband, former CBS producer Richard M. Cohen, who has written a book about his struggle with multiple sclerosis, which has robbed him of much of his eyesight, and two bouts of colon cancer.
In an interview, Vieira said: "The MS is something we live with every day. There are good days and not-so-good days, but mostly it's under control. . . . If suddenly Richard took a turn for the worst and the job interferes, we'd regroup."
Vieira told reporters that her oldest child, Ben, 16, called it "a no-brainer." Gabriel, 14, finding her crying about not being able to see them in the morning, said, "See us do what, fight?" Lily, 13, said, "Mom, just follow your heart."
In 1991, after two years as a "60 Minutes" correspondent, Vieira became pregnant with her second child and left the show when producer Don Hewitt would not allow her to continue to work part time. Since then, she has turned down morning show offers from ABC and CBS.
When Vieira announced her departure on "The View," co-host Barbara Walters called her "the glue" of the program and gave her a big hug. Vieira somehow managed to mention an incident "when my boob fell out of my dress" and "nobody noticed."
Not that this was a departure: Vieira has talked about how she hates to wear underpants and how her husband uses computer lingo when they have sex.
Vieira said in the interview that she would "have to tone it down" on "Today" because "you can't go quite as crazy, although you have a lot of room in injecting your own personality. The folks here are encouraging that. They may regret that."
Deborah Norville, whose 1990 debut on "Today" proved disastrous amid reports that Jane Pauley had been forced out, said yesterday that she was unable to defend herself because of a "gag order" imposed by NBC, but that Vieira would face a smoother transition.
Still, it is not easy "replacing a legend," Norville said, and the question for Vieira is: "Will viewers embrace her personality? Will they like something different? People in the morning are creatures of habit. They are used to seeing Katie ribbing Matt."
Jane Clayson, who co-hosted CBS's "Early Show" with Bryant Gumbel -- Couric's former partner on "Today" -- in a pairing that lasted 2 1/2 years, said Vieira's hard-news roots will serve her well.
"She's serious, she can be silly, and that's what morning people need," Clayson said. "Meredith already has a connection with the audience. People remember her from her days in news; they like her from her days of frivolity on 'The View' and her days of fun on 'Millionaire.' She is going into a well-oiled machine at the 'Today' show."
A smooth transition is critical for "Today," which has been the morning news leader for 10 years but faces a stiff challenge from Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson at ABC's "Good Morning America." Couric issued a statement praising Vieira's "broad range of experiences in inheriting one of the greatest jobs in television."
Jim Murphy, former executive producer of the "CBS Evening News," called Vieira "a brilliant choice. People underestimate her ability and skills as a live broadcaster and newswoman. She is really, really respected and liked by people who have worked with her. She's about the closest thing to Katie Couric that exists in this country."
Jon Friedman, media columnist for Marketwatch.com, also noted the parallels: "You can see that Meredith Vieira can be marketed as a Katie clone: a veteran journalist who can interview Condi or Angelina with equal aplomb, acceptably pretty for the breakfast hour, wholesome but not prudish, a devoted mother -- and, crucially, a wife who has cared for a sick husband."
Vieira has drawn criticism from the conservative Media Research Center, which called her "a megaphone for the liberal cause" and noted that she had marched in a 2004 demonstration against the Iraq war and has said: "Everything's been built on lies. Everything! I mean the entire pretext for war."
Vieira said in yesterday's interview: "I have a lot of questions about the war that other people have. I'm as comfortable asking Democrats about them as Republicans. It's not my job to say, 'Hey, I marched in a demonstration, so I think you're a jerk.' You put that on a shelf when you're a journalist."
A Providence native whose first television job was at a Rhode Island station, Vieira worked for New York's WCBS-TV before moving up to the network, where in 1985 she joined the prime-time magazine show "West 57th." Vieira also frequently co-hosted the "CBS Morning News."
While winning a slew of Emmys for her reporting, Vieira also caused a stir in 1988 when she posed for Esquire with a pink taffeta skirt hiked up.
Vieira, who joined ABC in 1993, has some showbiz experience as well. She has appeared on "General Hospital" and "All My Children" and in the Broadway musical "Thoroughly Modern Millie," as well as in a TV commercial for Bayer aspirin.
Vieira said it would be difficult to juggle both "Today" and "Millionaire" but said she was prepared to fulfill the last two years of her game show contract. Michael Davies, the show's executive producer, said after discussions with Vieira and her agent that "it would be a total shock to me" if she tried to bail out. Davies said her hiring by NBC "thoroughly disproved the idea that you can't host a game show and go back" to news.
But Vieira's agent, Michael Glantz, said last night: "Whether or not this makes sense for either or both sides remains to be seen. After we have an official discussion, we should know more."
Zucker said he had no problem with Vieira continuing to give away money, noting that onetime "Today" host Hugh Downs also hosted the game show "Concentration."
Morning show chemistry, of course, is crucial. At yesterday's news conference, Lauer was describing how he had picked up Vieira at CBS when she interrupted to say it was ABC.
"Can I just tell the story?" Lauer asked with mock annoyance. "Is this gonna happen?" Then, in an allusion to the woman Vieira is replacing, Lauer grumbled: "I've gone through 10 years of this."