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TV News, Women and Deborah Norville : Her ascension on the 'Today' show revives the Beauty Factor issue in broadcast news

November 26, 1989|JANE HALL

NEW YORK — It's a few minutes before 7 a.m., showtime on the "Today" show. The white clouds have been freshly spray-painted on the weather map, as they are every day on the sunnyside-up "Today" set in NBC's Rockefeller Center. But the real-life weather on the venerable NBC News show is more honest than this morning's forecast: "delightfully mild." With all the attention to Jane Pauley's impending departure, the co-hosts for today (and permanently, starting in January) are showing some signs of wear at being the stars of a domestic drama played out before millions.

Bryant Gumbel--a man not given to fake pleasantries under any circumstances--is in a grumpy start-up mode. And Deborah Norville--who was unfailingly bright-eyed and cheerful writing copy at 4 a.m. as the graveyard-shift anchor on "NBC News at Sunrise"--makes a rare flub as she reads the news on "Today."

"I could do it if I hadn't gotten just three hours sleep," Norville says off-camera. She quietly calls up the latest news bulletins on a laptop computer in the dark while listening to an interview by Gumbel in another section of the studio.

The show turns out to be one with which the producers are pleased. Norville, who is subbing this morning for Pauley in addition to reading the news, gets author Stephen King to talk about how a seemingly mild-mannered fellow writes all those horrific stories. And Gumbel mixes it up with former boxing champions Muhammad Ali, Ken Norton, Joe Frazier and Larry Holmes in an engaging interview that has the feel of good buddies talking.

But there's none of the "Moonlighting"-style repartee that characterized the on-camera relationship between Gumbel and Pauley, with Pauley returning a Gumbel macho serve with a ladylike lob to the baseline. In fact, compared to Pauley, who mastered the art of reacting to what was going on during the show over 13 years as co-host, Norville reacts hardly at all, seemingly more comfortable with reading the day's headlines and doing interviews than engaging in easy chit-chat. Add to that her beautiful face and precisely put-together style--elegant navy suit and coiffed blonde hair--and you've got someone who can seem just a little too perfect--"a Stepford anchor," as one critic put it.

"She doesn't let anybody into her head, so she can seem like an automaton on the air," says one network executive. "You can't succeed on TV five days a week, two hours a day, unless the true person comes out--and the audience likes what they see."

It's something Norville is working on. "This job is radically different from any I've had before," says the 31-year-old Norville, who recently was named to succeed Pauley in an emotional, on-air passing-of-the-alarm clock ceremony. "I know that sitting on the couch doing the interview and chatting back and forth is something in which one has to inject one's personality. It's a learning experience for me--and I think I can learn. All I can say is, don't shoot me before I'm in the saddle--let me get up there and ride a bit."

The story of how Deborah Norville came to succeed Jane Pauley as the next co-anchor on "Today"--a decision made, like most in TV, by male executives for female viewers--is so tied up with the role of women in TV news and, symbolically, women in general that it's hard to see Deborah Norville as an individual, sitting here in her NBC office. Her initial promotion last August, after only 2 1/2 years in network news, to a million-dollar contract and an expanded role as news anchor on "Today" set off a chain reaction that led to Pauley's decision to leave the program after 13 years.

Norville, who replaced veteran John Palmer, was seated side by side with Pauley in a role that Palmer had not played. The placement of the two women (which Pauley says she was not told about) made Norville look, as one critic described it, like the predatory Eve Harrington in the movie "All About Eve."

NBC executives misjudged Pauley's reaction to the change--and the reaction of female viewers. Pauley, who, according to NBC's own research, is very popular with the daytime audience, was perceived as being discarded for a younger, hungrier rival at the not-ready-for-retirement age of 39. And viewers responded--with thousands of angry letters and phone calls to NBC.

That's not the kind of reaction network executives want from the early-morning audience, where it takes years to build a following and where women outnumber men in the audience by a margin of two to one. "There are a lot of women out there who identify with Jane Pauley as a young, working mom," says one network executive who has studied the daytime audience. "Deborah Norville's appeal to women has not yet been tested--and now she's started out being depicted as a villainess."

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