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A morning makeover

Meredith Vieira slides smoothly into her new role as co-host of NBC's Today, a move made easier by the show's successful format.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published September 14, 2006


If the Today show proved anything in the months between star anchor Katie Couric's departure for CBS and the arrival of replacement Meredith Vieira on Wednesday, it's this: NBC's hit morning program is a finely tuned machine.

So, in an odd way, it didn't matter much that Today's first 120 minutes Wednesday turned into The Meredith Show. The new co-host joked with her new TV family, showed off a good luck bracelet made by her children and compared weatherguy Al Roker to her similarly named family hamster.

Sure, the jocularity seemed a bit forced at times, and the proceedings sometimes harkened back to Vieira's old stomping grounds on The View, where everyone tries to talk at once. And you had to wonder why producers felt compelled to play the same five-minute story previewing co-host Matt Lauer's Dateline NBC interview with Tampa schoolteacher-turned-molester Debra Lafave on Wednesday night twice in one broadcast.

But the rhythm and content of Today is so solid - newsier stories of the day in the first half-hour, progressively softer stuff as the show progresses and lots of promotions for NBC shows in prime time - Vieira's success hinged mostly on reading her lines correctly and making with a little perky chatter at the right time.

"I feel like it's the first day of school and I'm sitting next to the cutest guy," Vieira said in the show's first moments, shamelessly buttering up Lauer.

"I'm going to be the broad in broadcasting," she noted minutes later, drawing waves of laughter in the studio and a wry "Don't do that" from her co-host.

Hyped by months of promotional ads and news coverage, Vieira's first day also marked the unveiling of a new set swathed in white and blue, built to look sharp in the show's new high-definition broadcasts, which also started Wednesday. Jazzed-up graphics and a new theme helped complete the makeover.

To make sure viewers knew Vieira could handle it, producers gave her the first substantive interview of the morning, a sit-down with Meet the Press host Tim Russert to chew over Democrats' objections to President Bush's speech to the nation Monday.

Later, a retrospective of her career highlighted her work as a hard news reporter, with a nod to her years at CBS. As proof that hype makes for strange bedfellows, they even got a few quotes from the guy who made her quit 60 Minutes when she wanted to spend more time with her then-young family, retired executive producer Don Hewitt.

But there was still room for Vieira to rib Lauer over a recent shirtless photo of him that appeared in Us Weekly, showing footage of Bush asking him to sign the photo during their recent interview. Lauer's comeback, a glimpse of a leggy glamor shot of Vieira published in Esquire in 1988, wasn't nearly as funny.

One of the least-discussed results of the sea change kicked off by Couric's move has been the ascension of Lauer. Forever the junior partner on Today - subordinate first to longtime anchor Bryant Gumbel and then Couric after Gumbel left in 1997 - Lauer now stands as the senior star on Today, handling the network's Sept. 11 anniversary interview of Bush last week and the widely promoted interview with Lafave.

It helps that Today has remained the top show among the three morning programs since Couric's departure May 31, with backup personalities such as MSNBC's Lester Holt, Weekend Today's Campbell Brown and White House correspondent David Gregory helping with anchor chores.

Even as recently as the week of Aug. 14, the program beat second-place Good Morning America by nearly 400,000 viewers, notching its 558th consecutive week in first place, only adding to Lauer's allure.

"I have not been more excited to come into work since the day after Bryant announced he was leaving," Lauer cracked early in the show. As the program progressed, it was obvious he had become the new center of gravity, balancing Vieira's hyper-excited skittishness with his smooth charm.

Today's New World Order emerged during Lauer's well-promoted segment with Lafave, in which the former teacher blamed her decision to have sex with a 14-year-old student on fallout from her rape at age 13 and bipolar disorder.

Those themes were only amplified in Lauer's Dateline NBC story Wednesday evening, where Lafave invoked a long laundry list of excuses for her crime - from a cold and critical father, to mistreated bipolar disorder, the killing of her older sister by a drunken driver and her contention that the student groped her against her will at least once.

Filled with her own inconsistent behavior and voices sympathetic to her side, the hourlong program did little to answer the ultimate Lafave question: Why would a woman with so much throw it all away on such an awful crime? Worse, NBC preceded Lafave's story with an hour of its controversial To Catch a Predator series - in which men who visit a home thinking they are about to have sex with a 14-year-old they met online are instead arrested by police.

Besides offering a two-hour prime time cavalcade of sexual dysfunction, the two reports raised an important question: Why are men sitting in prison for announcing their intentions to sleep with a teenager, while Lafave faces just three years' house arrest and seven years' probation after admitting to several sexual encounters with a student? And why did a judge grant Lafave permission to leave her home for an interview with Dateline in the first place?

Such dark material seemed light years removed from the sunny vibe of Vieira's debut, which also included flowers from NBC News anchor Brian Williams and a live shot from Vieira's old school in Rhode Island.

More a nervous introduction than fully realized presentation, her first day was solid enough to make you wonder what will happen when Vieira is comfortable enough to take the keys to the Today show and drive it in her own direction.

But for now, in the show's faux-family structure, Vieira is the nervous stepmom, trying hard to say everything right and make sure the kids really, really come to like her. Judging by Wednesday's performance, she has given us very few reasons not to.

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521.