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`Today' to Get Co-Anchor With New Point of `View'

April 07, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — It was clear just minutes into Thursday's news conference at Rockefeller Center that Meredith Vieira was going to inject a different sensibility into NBC's "Today" when she starts co-anchoring the program this fall.

"I'm my own personality, so I hope to bring whatever that is, for better or worse, to the show," said the moderator of ABC's "The View" and host of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," who worked as a network news correspondent before moving to daytime television nine years ago. "I'm going to have to be reined in a little. It's funny; I had 20 years of news where I never said anything. Now every other word out of my mouth is 'orgasm.' "

That might have to change now that Vieira, 52, has signed a four-year deal at NBC that is worth around $35 million, said people familiar with the negotiations. She's set to start on "Today" in September, shortly after her contract on "The View" expires.

The lively chatter on "Today" is tame compared with the blunt and often bawdy girl talk between Vieira and her co-hosts. On "The View" Thursday, shortly after she told the audience that she would be moving to NBC, Vieira mused aloud about the time "my boob fell out my dress and nobody noticed it."

Even if she does tone herself down, the self-deprecating broadcaster still appears likely to spice up "Today."

In announcing that Vieira will replace Katie Couric, who is moving to CBS News this fall, NBC officials touted Vieira's varied career, which has included Emmy-winning pieces for "60 Minutes" and TV commercials for aspirin.

"When you think about the perfect prototype for a morning show host, you think of Meredith Vieira," said Jeff Zucker, chief executive of NBC Universal Television Group, who first approached her about the post in October. "I just thought, there's no one who has that total range of abilities."

But Vieira's outspokenness has already provided fodder for critics. Just hours after NBC announced her appointment, conservative media groups assailed her as biased, pointing to remarks she made on "The View" in 2004 about the Iraq war being "built on lies."

Vieira, who describes herself as a political independent, said her past comments wouldn't hurt her credibility.

"I have every right to have those opinions," she said in an interview. "Now that I'm back in a news role, I put that aside. You leave them at the door. But there's not a person I know who doesn't have opinions."

Vieira has been unapologetic throughout her career.

After getting her start as a radio news announcer in Worcester, Mass., Vieira worked at CBS News for more than a decade.

When the producers of "60 Minutes" declined to allow her to work part time after she became pregnant with her second child, Vieira left, criticizing the program's lack of flexibility. She served as a "CBS Evening News" correspondent and, for a time, as a morning show anchor.

In 1993, ABC News hired her as the chief correspondent for "Turning Point," a now-defunct prime-time newsmagazine. In 1997, Barbara Walters tapped her for "The View," a new daytime news and lifestyle program that featured a panel of female hosts. In 2002, Vieira also became host of the daytime game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

She said she never worried that doing entertainment programs would erode her journalistic credentials. "I think you can do a lot of different things," Vieira said. "My years as a journalist speak for themselves."

In recent years, the mother of three has turned down offers to return to morning television at CBS and ABC, largely because she feared the grueling schedule would take time away from her children and her husband, author Richard Cohen, who has multiple sclerosis.

So when Zucker called last fall and offered to give her a ride from "The View" studio to the "Millionaire" set -- just a few blocks away -- she didn't know what to expect. As his SUV rolled slowly through Manhattan traffic, the NBC executive asked whether she would ever consider joining "Today."

Vieira was inclined to say no. But her teenage children urged her to reconsider, so in December, she met "Today" co-anchor Matt Lauer for dinner at his apartment. The two immediately fell into a teasing back-and-forth.

"By the end of the evening, we were giving each other a lot of grief," Lauer said at the news conference.

"I said at the time, 'It's like going out on a blind date and you really like the guy,' " she added.

Subsequent meetings with "Today" executive producer Jim Bell and other NBC officials went just as well.

Still, Vieira was torn. "One minute I'd be excited -- I'd say, 'This could be great,' " she recalled. "And the next minute, I'd be

Ultimately, in the last month, she said she concluded that "not only was it the right thing but it was the right time in my life."

It's unclear whether she will continue on "Millionaire." Vieira is committed to the program for two more years, but acknowledged it might be difficult.

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