In its 37 years on NBC, the "Today" show has had many changes of family, but never with the acrimony and paranoia that are rampant now. Before the year is out, co-host Jane Pauley and weatherman Willard Scott, two of the top-rated morning show's big draws, could be gone. Both are dissatisfied with working conditions on the show and may leave. The blow could be crippling to the program and a boon to its two also-ran competitors, ABC's "Good Morning, America" and "CBS This Morning." Morning is a delicate time, and viewers like to think of the surrogate families who host these shows as happy clans -- not testy squabblers. How did the "Today" show get into such a mess? Sloppiness and insensitivity by network executives may be the chief reason. Pauley was offended by the clumsiness with which NBC handled the recent promotion of newcomer Deborah Norville, who has replaced John Palmer as "Today" newscaster. Norville has "a role greater than that traditionally held by the show's news anchors," according to the network's announcement, while poor Palmer was demoted to "NBC News at Sunrise." A bad situation grew worse when, after Pauley made her anxieties known, NBC management was slow in reassuring her about her status on the program. Press speculation about Norville being prettier and younger and a possible replacement for Pauley didn't help either. And a "glad-to-be-here" memo that Norville wrote to fellow members of the staff struck many as self-promoting and imperious. NBC executives are wild about Norville, sources confirm, and their passion may have muddled their judgment. As for Norville, she even looks predatory. "Obviously, she's hungry," one staff member says. "As hungry as a shark that's never had a meal in its life." The tensions and hostilities are apparent on the air. Norville was moved onto the couch for the show's opening family portrait with Jane and Bryant. Then she was moved off again. Gumbel seems animated and enthused when chatting with Norville, cool and stiff when dealing with Pauley. Watching the three of them on screen together is like looking at a broken marriage with the homewrecker right there on the premises. Gumbel seems more comfortable now with Norville than with Pauley, and Norville sometimes has a self-satisfied smirk on her face. Like Eve in "All About Eve." "Jane is upset, and I think she should be," says one TV executive familiar with the program. "That was an abrupt and unnecessary move, putting Norville on the set like that. It's clear the boys in charge see Norville as the future of the show." The situation has been simmering for weeks. Some feel it will boil over in the next few days. "The talks are going on," said Ralph Mann, Pauley's agent, yesterday. Dick Ebersol, the former sports executive recently given executive dominion over the "Today" show, represents the network. Some insiders think Pauley is only pouting so that NBC will soothe her with a hefty increase in her $1.2 million annual salary. But Mann says, "All this baloney about more money is completely untrue." This is about feelings, not finances. "The principal issue is whether or not she is going to be happy in how this is going to be resolved," Mann says. Pauley has two more years on her contract, and while NBC cannot force her to remain on the show, she could be prevented from going to another network, at least for the duration of the contract. "No one's suggested a breach of contract or anything like that," Mann said. Although one "Today" staff member describes Pauley as "tough and tenacious," another says the weeks of fighting are weighing on her. "She eventually just starts to tune out, retreats to her own little nether world, and this is starting to show on the air," the staff member says. Co-host of "Today" since 1976, Pauley helped it weather stormy times to reach and keep first place in the brutally competitive morning time slot. In 1979, when Pauley was undergoing personal problems, executives made efforts to replace her. Actress Mariette Hartley, later co-host of a disastrous CBS morning program, was among those hired to fill in for Pauley during maternity leaves. But the crew members adore Pauley and sabotaged all the replacements, one insider recalls. When Pauley returned to the show, she hit her stride. She's smart, attractive, and viewers feel comfortable with her. Pauley reportedly has a higher "Q" rating than co-host Gumbel. A "Q" rating measures the likability of TV stars. But the performer with the highest "Q" rating on the show -- higher than those of Gumbel or Pauley or anyone else in morning network television -- is the irrepressible and arguably irreplaceable Willard Scott. And Scott, like Pauley, is said to be wearying of the tensions and hostilities afflicting "Today." For Scott, the low period came last summer, when a Gumbel-authored memo, leaked to the press, chastised Willard for alleged "bad taste" and hogging the camera. During a previous contretemps -- when Gumbel grumpily ordered "Today" crews to stop laughing at Willard's hilarious jokes -- NBC placated Scott with a generous raise, sources say, and he signed a new contract that has three years to go. But according to one insider's scenario, an exit by Pauley would free Scott to leave the show, too. And he would. Ebersol reportedly arranged a very friendly lunch with Gumbel and Scott last week in New York. But sources familiar with the situation say Scott feels he and Gumbel will never again be perceived as buddies by the viewing audience, no matter how well they get along off-camera. Scott was unexpectedly absent from the program on Monday and Tuesday, but may appear again this morning. Both Pauley and Scott may feel, sources speculate, that it would be better to leave the "Today" show on their own power than to be forced out by Gumbel and Ebersol, who are old friends. Gumbel has reportedly been present at all executive meetings called by Ebersol to discuss the "Today" show's future. Ebersol, who recently appointed "Entertainment Tonight" producer Dave Nuell to take over the program after the first of the year, was among those declining to return phone calls yesterday. Others who did not respond included NBC News President Michael Gartner. No one wants to talk on the record and everyone is nervous. As NBC stonewalls, observers devise their own theories. The National Enquirer hit the stands with its version on Monday: "Back-Stabbing Bryant Gumbel's Secret Plot to Force Jane Pauley Off 'Today' Show." The reason for the alleged conspiracy? "Arrogant, egotistical Gumbel wants the limelight all to himself," the tabloid claims. By sheer and perhaps pointless coincidence, Gumbel mulled over the origins of the term "limelight" on yesterday's show. What amazes many people about the "Today" show crisis is the stupidity of it and the avoidability of it. The efforts of Ebersol, Gartner and others to remodel the program would appear to be a classic case of disobeying the maxim, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." But others close to the situation think the release of the Gumbel memo set off a chain reaction, and that it may not end until either Pauley or Scott, or both, have left the program. Says one insider glumly, "There are going to be a lot of bodies floating around in the water before this thing gets settled."