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Lafave case adds to 'Today' show buildup

When Meredith Vieira debuts Wednesday in the spot vacated by Katie Couric, the show will include an interview with the former Tampa teacher.

Published September 8, 2006

[Times photo: Joseph Garnett Jr.]
Debra Lafave, with her attorney John Fitzgibbons, at a hearing in March.

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If you had any doubt that the Debra Lafave case remains an attention-getting subject nationwide, consider this: Today show anchor Matt Lauer's interview with the former Greco Middle School teacher who seduced a 14-year-old student will air Wednesday, one of the biggest days in the program's recent history.

That's when Meredith Vieira joins Lauer, Ann Curry and Al Roker as the replacement for Katie Couric. And to hear Lauer tell it, his interview with Lafave - to be featured in a five-minute Today segment and an hourlong Dateline NBC special at 8 p.m. Wednesday - is worth the featured status.

"I don't really know what people are expecting to see from Debra Lafave," Lauer said in a conference call Thursday. "Are they expecting to see someone who is the devil? I don't think you'll see that. I think you see someone who clearly is mixed up, who is clearly willing to admit that she made a horrendous mistake and is willing to accept the consequences for it."

Lauer and Vieira, also part of the conference call, touched on a wide range of topics during the hourlong chat. But what drew the most emotion from Vieira was questions about the coverage of Couric's CBS Evening News debut Tuesday, specifically, an explosion of stories about a network publicist retouching a photo to make her look slimmer and reviews that noted what she wearing.

"That's one of those moments, as a woman in the business - I'm 52; I don't ever hide that - where you think you've made so much progress, and yet, you're constantly taking these little steps back," Vieira said. "They're almost like little jabs to remind you who you are, sometimes. ... Maybe as a woman I have a chip on my shoulder when I see those things ... because I suddenly feel sexism in the room again."

The anchors and NBC executives were tight-lipped about details of Vieira's debut, which will feature a new set (an NBC executive called it "elegant, bright, modern"), where they performed a mock opening half-hour this week to prepare.

A JOLT OF REALITY: Speaking with reporters during a conference call Thursday, Survivor host Jeff Probst was effusive about how this season's highly diverse cast, which will start the competition in teams segregated by race and ethnicity, energized the reality show in its 12th season.

"We started looking at these people saying, 'Wow. We have fresh points of view again,' " said Probst, a self-described "white guy from Wichita (Kansas)" who learned a lot about cultural differences during the show.

So does that mean all those critics who said Survivor should have had more diverse casts from the beginning - including this critic - were right? And why did it take producers so long to try to make the show more ethnically diverse?

Probst didn't really answer that question, but he did explain why some contestants of color have seemed stereotypical.

"If you have a season and you only have one black guy and everybody else is white . . . if that black guy doesn't perform, or that black guy can't swim, or if that black guy quits, it's like a beacon screaming, 'Oh you're portraying a stereotype,' " he said. "But if you looked across the board at all of the (jerks) we've had on the show who are white . . . you could draw a list that would probably equal out."

The picture Probst painted indirectly was of a program at a crossroads as producers went to plan the new season five months ago.

Major advertisers including General Motors, Home Depot and Procter & Gamble had already told the network they would not be advertising with the show. And the show had suffered from competing with ABC's popular Dancing With the Stars.

According to Probst, producers decided to focus on the one thing they had been most criticized for: a lack of diversity. Their strategy of splitting up teams by race and ethnicity came only after they noticed the ethnic pride of many contestants in their newly diverse contestant pool, Probst said.

Because 85 percent of the people who apply to the show are white, producers had to embark on their most extensive casting process ever to find 20 contestants split evenly among white people, black people, Hispanics and Asian-Americans. They even called a woman who was crowned Miss Koreatown in Seattle during the 1990s, Probst said.

"I was excited every day, because for the first time in a long time, I didn't know what was going to happen," he said. "It was enormously exciting to be vulnerable again."

[Last modified September 8, 2006, 05:49:48]

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