By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 9, 2007
Meredith Vieira was gliding along the Rockefeller Center skating rink during a "Today" show segment last month when she attempted to go between actor Will Ferrell's legs, lost her balance, fell backward and conked her head on the ice.
While Vieira laughed off the mishap the next morning, her rivals saw it as symbolic of a bumpy ride since she became Matt Lauer's co-host seven months ago.
To be sure, "Today" remains firmly atop the morning news heap. But the ratings have slipped to the lowest first-quarter level in 11 years, and the transition from Katie Couric to Vieira has not been seamless.
"I'm still in the process of getting comfortable," Vieira says. "This is an ensemble, and it's a performance every day. It's a dance. The more you do it, the better you get at it."
Although Vieira starred for nine years as a panelist on "The View" and continues as host of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," she says the morning arena is different. "You discover many people don't know you and you have to reintroduce yourself to the audience. It's ' Who the heck do you think you are, Missy?' "
On her freewheeling blog, Vieira wrote one day that "I called Matt an 'idiot.' I meant it as a joke, but a lot of people at home weren't laughing. They were too busy e-mailing the show to let me know they didn't appreciate it." And in a remarkably candid interview with Ladies' Home Journal, Vieira talked about her crying jags after starting the job, and anxiety attacks that sometimes leave her unable to drive over bridges.
The business has been buzzing about last week's ratings report. For the first three months of the year, "Today" averaged 5.73 million daily viewers, a 7 percent decline from a year ago. ABC's "Good Morning America" averaged 4.98 million, a 3 percent drop, while CBS's "Early Show" lagged the field at 2.96 million, up 3 percent.
"GMA," which lost one of its stars when Charlie Gibson became the "World News" anchor last year, seems to be edging in a harder direction. Co-host Diane Sawyer, who recently visited Iran and North Korea, is slated to be in Afghanistan this morning and Saudi Arabia later this week. "It's always of great interest to American women what has happened to women in Afghanistan, and Diane will report on that, plus cover the news and get the big interviews," says Jim Murphy, the show's senior executive producer. "The 'Today' show can continue to cover the Anna Nicole Smith hearings. . . . They do have an overabundance of tabloid stuff. They are just pandering because they're not doing as well as they expected to do."
Steve Friedman, CBS's vice president of morning programming, says Vieira "hasn't mastered the rhythms of morning television yet. She appears a little uneasy and a little uncomfortable. I do believe there is more talk and less news on the 'Today' show in this incarnation, and that has given us and 'GMA' an opportunity, at least in our own minds, to attack them on the news end."
Jim Bell, executive producer of "Today," laughs off the criticism. He says "Dr. Frankenstein" could not have created a better co-host, noting that Vieira is a wife, a mother and a former "60 Minutes" correspondent. "She's brought a wonderful personality and sense of humor and mischievousness," he says.
Bell dismisses as "hogwash" suggestions that the show's content has significantly changed and has little patience for sniping by Friedman, who has twice served as the "Today" producer. "Mr. Friedman and company are obsessed with us," Bell says. "While they're obsessed with us, we will pave the road for others to follow."
In recent weeks, Lauer has conducted a jailhouse interview with a man accused of killing an 18-year-old student he believed was having an affair with his wife, and another interview with a high school student who says he was sexually assaulted by a female teacher. The program played up hidden-camera footage from "Dateline" of sports-obsessed husbands criticizing their wives while watching games on TV, and examined whether rehab for the likes of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan amounts to a vacation. But such fare is not exactly unknown on the other morning shows after the news-filled first half-hour, as the audience turns more heavily female and the programs gravitate toward celebrity chefs, fashion divas and parental advice.
Bell says "Today" turned down a proposed town hall meeting with Hillary Clinton because the format was "boring," and that the "GMA" team "got their clocks cleaned" in the ratings when co-host Robin Roberts moderated the forum. Says ABC's Murphy: "If they're proud to not be covering one of the greatest stories of our time, I feel very sorry for them."
With a revamped "Today" Web site, Bell sees the future online, saying that some of the show's video excerpts have been viewed more than 1 million times a day. Vieira is the only morning anchor with a regular blog.
Lauer became the program's big dog after Couric decamped for the "CBS Evening News," and Vieira says she is trying to fit in with him, Ann Curry and Al Roker. She says the program's range is "more demanding" than in her previous jobs but fits her "short attention span."
"I like going from news to something more informational to something that's silly and fun," Vieira says. But she admits that some lighter fare is not up her alley. "I'm not the biggest fan of fashion shows, only because I know nothing about fashion," she says. "The tags are still on some of my clothes."
While Vieira, with her $11-million-a-year salary, did not exactly sneak into 30 Rock, she says far more attention was paid to Couric's evening news debut and Rosie O'Donnell as Vieira's high-decibel replacement on "The View." "I was able to get in under the radar because there was much more hype with Katie, and Rosie as well," Vieira says.
"Today" quickly began a concerted effort to acquaint the audience with Vieira and her family. There was footage of her bantering with her three teenage children, and excerpts of Vieira and her 15-year-old son getting cooking tips on Martha Stewart's show. Her dog, Jasper, has made appearances on the show. Amid questions about whether Jasper is really an Australian shepherd, the canine star will undergo a DNA test, with the results touted on the air.
Vieira says she talked about her kids far more on "The View," given the show's chatty nature, and the teenagers "thought, jeez, great, shut her up, put her on 'Today.' "
After Vieira began, NBC made sure to give her a number of newsmaker interviews in an effort to highlight her journalistic background. She has sat down with the likes of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Condoleezza Rice, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Laura Bush. Vieira also says she's been able to "put a little bit of my stamp" on "Today," pushing for segments on chronic illness, a subject close to her heart because her husband, Richard, has multiple sclerosis.
"I now see it as a personality-based show giving you information," says CBS's Friedman. "I can't match their personalities. Matt, Meredith, Al, Ann, they're America's first family in the morning. I have to go after them on the information."
Couric helped keep "Today" in first place for a decade, and filling her shoes, as Vieira is the first to admit, isn't easy. NBC executives note that the program's lead over "GMA" is greater now than in the first quarter of 2005.
Vieira debuted to generally good reviews, and her versatility is clearly an asset for "Today," even if she is still feeling her way with her new family. In any event, she has a method for dealing with press criticism: refusing to read any article that involves her.
"I could have 10 great things written about me," Vieira says, "and the next one will be crummy and that's the one I remember."