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Matt, Meredith prepare for their chemistry test

April 10, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — "Today" co-anchor Matt Lauer was in the middle of describing a cellphone conversation with his newly hired on-air partner, Meredith Vieira, when -- in front of a roomful of reporters -- she interrupted to correct his account.

"Can I tell the story?" he retorted in mock exasperation. "Is this going to happen? I went through 10 years of this!"

"I thought you just screwed up again," she said, patting his knee apologetically. "I was trying to help you."

Sitting a few feet away and watching them teasingly spar at last week's news conference, "Today's" executive producer Jim Bell joked that he felt like crying. It was the first time he had gotten to see his new anchor team in action and the two were already needling each other like longtime friends.

"It was one thing to think it would work, but to actually see the two of them and how they played off each other -- it got me really jazzed to think about the possibilities of the show," Bell said. "It's hard to pin down why it happens or when it happens, but they just click together."

Perhaps in no other type of news program is on-air chemistry as important as on morning television. "Today" built its decade-long winning streak largely on the repartee between Lauer and outgoing co-anchor Katie Couric, whose joking exchanges evolved over the years into the banter of a long-married couple. Once it became clear that Couric was seriously considering leaving the show to go to CBS News, finding another pairing that worked just as well became NBC's top priority.

"That is the key ingredient," said Phil Griffin, the news division's senior vice president who oversees "Today." "It is a very personal relationship in the morning, and I think you really make a connection with those hosts in the way you don't with others on television. It's critical that they be real and natural."

So critical, in fact, that when ABC's "Good Morning America" began closing in on the top-rated show last year, NBC executives decided it was largely because "Today's" format had become too tightly scripted, giving Couric and Lauer little time to engage in spontaneous chatter. Bell was installed to reinvigorate it, and he immediately blocked out more time for unplanned riffs. Within months, "Today" had regained a wide lead.

Viewers seek anchors with an authentic camaraderie in the morning because it is an especially intimate time, said Stuart Fischoff, senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology.

"It's like getting married -- you're inviting people into your home, your kitchen, even your bathroom," he said. "The last thing you want are people who are going to annoy you."

Although the elements of on-air chemistry are somewhat ineffable, it's clear that much of it hinges on good-natured ribbing. When Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley started off as "Today" co-anchors in the early 1980s, producers understood the pairing would be successful once he began harping about how messy she kept her side of the desk and she, in turn, taunted him for being fastidious, Griffin noted.

"All of a sudden, these figures were human," he said.

Less effective was Gumbel's partnership with Deborah Norville, Pauley's successor, whose formal demeanor did not mesh well with her co-anchor's gruffness. She was quickly replaced by Couric, who took delight in teasing Gumbel when he became prickly. Soon afterward, "Today" regained its perch as the top-rated morning show.

Since then, its competitors have experimented with their own anchor combinations, trying to create an on-air dynamic that will help them challenge NBC. Over at "Good Morning America," ABC bumped Robin Roberts up from the news desk to the anchor desk last year when executives saw that the former sportscaster added a folksiness to the interplay between Diane Sawyer and Charles Gibson. CBS -- whose five-person anchor team on "The Early Show" continues to lag far behind the competition -- recently recruited Steve Friedman, a veteran morning show producer, to reinvigorate the program.

When it came time for Lauer to consider a new partner, he said one of his top priorities was to find someone with a good sense of humor.

With Vieira, he was pleased to discover an immediate connection. The two had met briefly at various functions over the years, but they didn't really get to know each other until this winter, when NBC officials began wooing "The View" co-host for the post in case Couric departed. During a phone conversation with her in December to set up a get-acquainted dinner at Lauer's apartment, "there was a banter, an easiness in the conversation," he said in an interview.

"It usually takes two people a little while to learn where the funny buttons are and testy buttons are, and it seemed we found that right away on the phone," Lauer added.

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