Meredith Vieira's Smooth 'Today' Transition

NEW YORK (December 3, 2006) — Katie Couric’s ratings, attempts to inject an opinion segment into the “CBS Evening News” and search for a signoff have all been meticulously detailed in print. The state of Rosie O’Donnell’s relationship with the other women of “The View” is monitored daily.

What was that other big television change this fall? Sometime in the morning?

Oh, yeah. Meredith Vieira.

NBC News, which prides itself on smooth talent transitions, seems to have achieved it on the “Today” show, where Vieira slipped into the anchor chair beside Matt Lauer in September without roiling the morning show audience.

“It’s been too smooth,” said Jim Bell, “Today” executive producer. “It’s been too good. As great a story as it has been for us, it’s just been seamless and that may be why it hasn’t drawn as much attention. That’s fine, I guess. We’re more than thrilled, obviously, with the results.”

The average “Today” audience of 5.8 million viewers during the first two months of Vieira’s tenure was about the same as it was during Couric’s tenure in 2005, according to Nielsen Media Research.

At the same time, chief rival “Good Morning America” on ABC has slipped. Since Vieira took over, there have been 22 days where “Today” had a lead of more than a million viewers, compared to six times during the same period a year before, Nielsen said.

Those looking for cracks in the armor would note that Nielsen’s averages are skewed by the large number of curious viewers who tuned in for Vieira’s first few days. “GMA” pulled to within 330,000 during the mid-November week when it was boosted by a colorful travelogue series and interviews with “Dancing with the Stars” contestants.

“I’m sure they look at it as `boy, we weathered the storm,’” said Steve Friedman, executive producer of CBS’ revamped “The Early Show.” “But other people from the outside expected more.”

Either way, the Vieira transition is far better than one “Today” famously botched, replacing Jane Pauley with Deborah Norville. And it’s virtually certain “Today” will reach a new milestone this week: 11 years of unbroken ratings domination.

“I didn’t know what to expect, to be honest with you,” Vieira told The Associated Press. “I think the thing I feared the most was the time change, getting up early, and that has turned out to be not nearly as big a deal as I thought it would be.”

She’s come to enjoy the quiet few minutes in her kitchen before leaving for work, even if it’s at an ungodly hour.

Her children certainly don’t mind mom going to bed early. Her husband, writer Richard Cohen, usually turns in early, too.

“They’re teenagers,” she said jokingly. “They would have me down at 6 in the evening, so I can’t know what they’re doing. They love this job. It fits into their life of deceiving their parents very well.”

What’s often overlooked is how so much of “Today” now resembles what she used to do on “The View.” There’s a preponderance of light features, useful tips and entertainment geared primarily to female viewers.

Unless there’s a huge breaking story that requires attention for her two full hours there hasn’t been so far the bulk of the show’s hard news subjects are covered in the first 30 minutes.

Despite the occasional glitch like interrupting an Andrea Mitchell report on Iraq one day last week, Vieira has shown that the news chops that got her to “60 Minutes” haven’t disappeared while dormant for a decade. Bell said he didn’t hesitate to throw her into the mix, assigning her early interviews with former President Clinton and first lady Laura Bush.

Vieira said she could feel the stakes riding on her Bush interview.

“I knew everybody was watching to see how I did, including the White House,” she said. “They weren’t sure what to think of me because there had been a lot written up before I took this job about how I had been at an anti-war rally. So much was made of that I didn’t know if they thought that I would come in with an agenda, which I don’t when it comes to a news story.”

Interviewing Madonna was another highlight, she said.

“I just had a great time with her from the minute I met her,” she said. “I connected with her as a mom.”

Vieira, 52, tries to connect with “Today” viewers through her Web log. Sometimes thoughtful, sometimes pithy, the blog feels like any good one should, as a letter from a friend. Last week she wrote poignantly about whether her children could appreciate the idea of Santa Claus now that they old enough to know he doesn’t exist. She also wrote about her nervousness finding out NBC honcho Jeff Zucker had waited fruitlessly outside her office to say hello.

One odd possible byproduct of Vieira’s higher profile is the success of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” this fall. Viewership for the syndicated game show, which Vieira continues to host, has been up 18 percent since last fall, Nielsen said.

Vieira is under contract for one more year of “Millionaire,” and said she’d like to continue beyond that.

At “Today,” Bell said Vieira has “passed every single test imaginable. She continues to grow and get more comfortable every day.”

For a program that actively promotes the concept of family, it seems the audience so far has welcomed Vieira into theirs.

“I don’t know that they have,” she said. “I get a very nice response when I go out on the plaza. I don’t think they’d send me all the e-mails from people who would prefer that I would drop dead.”

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