Vieira Welcomed With Open Arms

Apr 10, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Jeff Zucker made it look easy. So did Meredith Vieira.

Last Wednesday Katie Couric, a longtime morning star and friend of NBC Universal Television Group CEO Mr. Zucker, delivered the bombshell news that she is leaving the NBC family for CBS News.

On Thursday Mr. Zucker ushered “The View’s” Ms. Vieira, 52, into the seat next to “Today” co-anchor Matt Lauer, 49, and announced that Ms. Vieira is scheduled to replace Ms. Couric on “Today” by September. The attending press responded as if it were seeing a match made in TV heaven. So instant was the Lauer-Vieira chemistry that Mr. Lauer said to Ms. Couric on-air Friday that he felt almost as if he’d been unfaithful to her. But Ms. Couric had had a congratulatory phone chat with Ms. Vieira and released a statement saying: “I’m thrilled that someone with Meredith’s broad range of experiences is inheriting one of the greatest jobs in television.”

Ms. Vieira, who is expected to remain with “The View” at least through May, also hosts Buena Vista Television’s syndicated game show strip “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” which she is expected to continue to do for now.

‘Today’ Looks Safe

“Today,” which is on an unbroken 10-year winning streak in the morning show ratings is NBC News’ cash cow. With the addition of Ms. Vieira, it appears secure for at least four years.

The stakes are higher for “Today’s” competitors, especially “Good Morning America” at ABC, the network for which Ms. Vieira co-hosted “The View” for nine years.

“The Early Show” at CBS will be under increasing pressure to improve, but it has never been a factor in the morning news wars, where network news divisions have the opportunity make billions of dollars in ad revenues.

But “GMA” came within 40,000 viewers of catching “Today” last spring, only to slide back many weeks to a million or more viewers behind “Today.”

“Today” is good to go for at least the next four years, for less than $10 million per year, with the signing of Ms. Vieira, who was an Emmy-winning correspondent at CBS News and ABC News before she joined Barbara Walters and the other ladies of “The View.” Ms. Vieira signed a four-year contract with “Today.”

One parallel revealed last week: Ms. Couric will contribute reports to “60 Minutes” along with her other duties, and Ms. Vieira was frozen out of “60 Minutes” in the ’90s when she became pregnant with the second of her three children.

Noting one of the differences between Ms. Couric’s and Ms. Vieira’s on-air farewells-the real goodbyes for both women won’t come until the end of May-Ms. Walters said, “Katie didn’t cry. Meredith did.”

The tears did flow.

Ms. Walters paved the way to stardom and the bank for many TV newswomen, including Ms. Couric and Ms. Vieira. Ms. Walters left “Today” in 1976 to become the first woman to co-anchor an evening newscast at ABC and the best-paid TV news woman at $1 million a year (Ms. Couric commands about $15 million a year).

“I was crucified. How dare I come from the ‘Today’ show to do the news?” she recalled last Friday. “Now Meredith is coming from a daytime show and a quiz show to ‘Today’ and there is no criticism, nor should there be. It’s a different time. People realize that you don’t just have to do hard news to do a news program.”

Actually, some purists have raised the question of Ms. Vieira’s second job on “Millionaire,” but Mr. Zucker said, “That has never been an issue.” (And Ms. Vieira said she has not begun conversations about her two-year obligation to “Millionaire” with syndicator Buena Vista Television.)

“Meredith does have a multiyear contract with us,” a Buena Vista Television spokeswoman said. “We’re thrilled that she’s staying on to do ‘Millionaire.'”

Vieira Under Scrutiny

Conservative groups have begun scrutinizing “The View’s” transcripts for Ms. Vieira’s comments on such hot topics as the war in Iraq, which she opposes.

Ms. Vieira, known to colleagues as “a grown-up,” said she knows “it’s my responsibility once I’m on this show to put those [biases] aside.”

She also acknowledged to reporters that she’ll have to watch the girl talk after nine years on “The View,” where “every word out of my mouth is ‘orgasm.'”

And if NBC News can keep its up-and-comers happy-including “Weekend Today” co-host Campbell Brown, who was the leading in-house contender to succeed Ms. Couric, and chief White House correspondent David Gregory, “Today” will have secured not just this generation of potential morning stars but the next.