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Job swap as a sweeps stunt? Hey, it worked

NBC's 'Today' and 'Tonight' shows get ratings boosts as Jay Leno and Katie Couric trade places for a day.

May 14, 2003|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

He stifled the one-liners and asked Secretary of State Colin L. Powell: "How hard is it to be a diplomat in the Middle East right now?" She put on a black cocktail dress, heels and told jokes. For instance: In Los Angeles, "if you tell a woman she looks anorexic, she says, 'Thank you.' "

In a May ratings sweeps stunt that had the mildly pleasant aspect of "topsy-turvy day" at a junior high, Jay Leno and Katie Couric traded TV places Monday.

He co-hosted the "Today" show. She hosted "The Tonight Show."

Those wondering whether the arrangement blurs the distinction between "news" and "entertainment" are encouraged to step into the year 2003, when all the world's a set. After all, if "Today" co-host Matt Lauer could put on khakis and wrap-around shades and gab from Doha, Qatar, during the war in Iraq, why couldn't Katie play late-night-talk-show-host dress-up?

Seen in this context, the Couric-Leno stunt is no different from more traditional sweeps moves -- having Kelsey Grammer's Frasier, say, cross over into the world of "Will & Grace."

Both "Today" and "Tonight" perennially beat their respective competition in the ratings, with Couric and Leno atop the two long-running, profitable NBC franchises. Both programs got ratings boosts, particularly "Tonight," which did almost 50% better than the show's typical Monday this season, according to preliminary estimates Tuesday. "Today" improved 9% on its usual Monday.

Couric had prepared for weeks for her "Tonight Show" stint and came to L.A. trailing a New York Post story that claimed she'd gotten haughty over guest bookings (not true, said a "Tonight" spokeswoman). Still, watching "The Tonight Show" felt like being at Katie's Sweet 16. Leno's staff had written her a monologue, but that wasn't all: Dr. Phil came out as a "surprise guest"; there was a taped segment in which various personalities (Conan O'Brien, Tom Brokaw, Howie Mandel) offered her words of encouragement; the front of the desk was removed in a bit calling attention to Couric's shapely legs.

All of this happened before there were guests -- comedian Mike Myers (who used one of his segments to emphasize earnestly that his hometown of Toronto was safe from SARS); Simon Cowell, the arrogant judge on Fox's "American Idol"; and pop singer Robbie Williams.

The Leno-Couric crisscross is part of a whole week of such job swapping on NBC. Thursday on "Today," for instance, Lauer will drive a cab and a cabdriver will co-host the show.

None of this is terribly out of character for "Today," which went on the air in 1952, network TV's first early morning show. In the history of the show, Couric is perhaps its star-of-stars, a quick-change artist of mood and tone who fits "Today's" hybrid format, going from the "hard-hitting" interview with a public official to the ego stroke of a celebrity plugging a movie. At the end of 2001, she ended speculation that she would leave the show by signing a new contract with NBC estimated to be worth between $13 million and $16 million a year through 2006.

Asked during a conference call with reporters if doing "The Tonight Show" would affect her credibility as a newswoman, Couric said: "I do consider myself a journalist, and I think I can handle pretty adeptly hard news."

On "Tonight," she was something else again -- a mommy-of-the-year not too old to don a coquette's dress.

Much earlier, Leno appeared on "Today." His job, in its own way, was tougher, for he had to blend in, and Leno is not a blender. He is Leno wherever he goes, projecting the image of an affable wisecracker. On this day, NBC caught a small break: The bombings of three residential compounds in Riyadh was still hours away, so Leno's taped interview with Powell didn't seem horribly misplaced. They could still joke about cars.

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