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When Katie met Jeff

Couric and executive producer Zucker were a perfect match for 'Today.' Since he left, things just haven't been the same.

June 20, 2005|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

New York — By now, the story's become part of the Katie Couric legend.

In October 1992, Couric, still a relatively new face on NBC's venerable morning news program "Today," was finishing a live tour of the White House with then-First Lady Barbara Bush when a surprise guest wandered into the Blue Room -- President George H.W. Bush himself.

Bush apparently had planned just to say a quick hello on national television, but a poised Couric kept him there for 19 minutes. She quizzed him about the burgeoning Iran-Contra scandal and his recent debate performance against Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, confirming her journalistic credentials in the process.

Though it was not apparent to viewers that day, another crucial dynamic was also at work: Couric's symbiotic relationship with Jeff Zucker, then "Today's" executive producer. From his perch inside a satellite truck parked in the White House driveway, he shouted questions into her earpiece, helping her turn the chance encounter into a newsmaker interview.

First paired in 1990 when he produced the segments she did as a national correspondent for the program, Zucker's brash, hyperkinetic style and Couric's unflappable charm quickly proved a winning combination. By the next year, they had risen to the top slots at "Today," where the relentlessly driven wunderkind producer -- just 26 -- helped the novice anchor hone her "America's sweetheart" persona.

Together, they helped catapult "Today" back on top of the morning-show pack, where it has remained for nearly a decade. Along the way, they forged one of the most successful and profitable partnerships in broadcast news.

That relationship continued after Zucker left the program to climb the network ladder in 2000, providing Couric with a strong ally in NBC's executive suites. But since then, a persistent unsettledness has hung over "Today," where yet another executive producer -- the third in five years -- was installed in April, after a harsh wake-up call from a suddenly surging competitor, ABC's "Good Morning America."

Now president of NBC Universal Television Group, Zucker said the recent change in management was prompted solely by the show's dip in the ratings this spring -- not by any demands by Couric.

But it's clear that Couric has struggled to connect with his successors. An exacting professional, she has felt frustrated by the show's leadership, unable to find an executive producer who shares Zucker's eye for stories and manic commitment to the news, according to friends, colleagues and former network officials.

Meanwhile, her carefree "girl-next-door" image that Zucker so carefully cultivated has evolved -- and not always to public acclaim, especially after a $60-million contract thrust her into an elite world of celebrity and wealth. Now 48, Couric has shucked the traditional anchor coif for a sleek bob and sports trendy tunics, leopard-print skirts and chandelier earrings on the air.

Couric declined an interview, citing a busy schedule. (She was in Scotland last week interviewing "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling.)

But others familiar with the program said Zucker's departure left a hole at "Today" -- and Couric without a partner in the control booth.

"Since that time, they've not been able to find a new Jeff," said Michael Bass, executive producer of CBS' "The Early Show," who worked as Zucker's deputy for five years and then briefly served as acting executive producer of "Today" in 2001. "When you have something that works so well and you lose it, you're constantly thinking, 'Remember how it used to be?' I think she really felt that."

Added Wendy Walker Whitworth, a Couric friend of 26 years who works as an executive vice president at CNN: "Jeff is a hard act to follow.... There was an amazing amount of trust."

In an interview, Zucker would not comment on Couric's frustrations with his successors except to acknowledge that they likely suffered by comparison.

"Obviously, she and I had a unique relationship, and you can never duplicate something like that," he said.

Some disagreed that Couric has measured Zucker's replacements against him.

"Our staff has been quick to embrace other producers, and I think Katie has too," said co-anchor Matt Lauer. "She knows Jeff is not the producer anymore."

Still, Zucker and Couric continue to speak several times a week, bound not only by a shared history but personal challenges -- he survived two bouts with colon cancer, the same disease that killed Couric's husband in 1998 -- and most recently, their own professional rough patches.

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