New York — IT was holiday time on "Today," and Meredith Vieira was quizzing Martha Stewart about picking a Christmas tree.
"Do you get the real thing, or do you like to fake it?" Vieira asked the domestic doyenne, her face fixed in an innocent expression.
"I do both," Stewart said, going on to explain the benefits of using artificial trees.
Vieira's subtle double-entendre might have gone unnoticed if Joy Behar, her former co-host from ABC's "The View," hadn't been on later in the show to promote her new children's book. She pounced on the exchange. "That was very slippery of you -- the old Meredith slipping in from 'The View!' " said Behar, chortling as Vieira grinned guiltily.
There's no question the 53-year-old broadcaster has toned it down since her days moderating the ABC coffee klatch. But three months after succeeding Katie Couric as co-anchor of NBC's "Today," Vieira's clearly feeling more at ease in her role on the morning powerhouse, evident in the frequent flashes of her impish humor.
"It takes time to turn your new house into your home," she said later that morning, sitting cross-legged in her small dressing room over Rockefeller Center's Studio 1A, her hair pinned up in large curlers. Now "there's that comfort level where I can really be myself, and no one is going to fire me. Like, 'Oh my God, that's her?' "
In fact, while Couric has fielded sniping about the changes she's made to the "CBS Evening News" this fall and Rosie O'Donnell has stirred a new controversy nearly every week since arriving at "The View," Vieira's transition to "Today" has been almost placid by comparison.
So now, the top-rated show is looking to its next challenge: plotting out innovations that will keep the program competitively sharp down the road, while fending off the complacency that allowed ABC's "Good Morning America" to nearly overtake it in the ratings last year.
"I do think we've got to mix things up, and now that everybody's there, I think we're ready to do it," said Phil Griffin, senior vice president at NBC News in charge of "Today," as he headed to a meeting with the show's producers to map out new projects for the next year.
A possibility on the table: expanding the program to a fourth hour, a move that could generate substantial new revenue for the news division.
"We don't want to paint by numbers," said Jim Bell, the show's executive producer. "We are both aware of the competition and the show's very rich tradition, but we don't want to be so bound by it that we find ourselves just going through the motions every day and saying, 'Well, we'll just do this because that worked yesterday or the month before.' We have to keep changing."
Vieira's arrival was the biggest change on the 54-year-old program since Matt Lauer replaced Bryant Gumbel almost a decade ago.
HER first few months at "Today" may not have received the same amount of scrutiny as Couric's at CBS, but the stakes are just as high for NBC. As the top moneymaker for NBC News, the three-hour-long morning show is its most valuable commodity. A dip in viewership could mean the loss of millions of dollars.
"Fear of failure is a big motivator for me," Vieira said. "There was so much hype around this, just this sense that I was going to let down an entire broadcast, not just one person, but everybody who put a tremendous amount of faith in me -- I felt the weight of it."
But her co-workers said she fit into the show surprisingly easily. "She's got a certain sense of anarchy that the rest of us have," said Al Roker, the show's weatherman. "What's great about her is it's not all about her. And that's not to say anything about anyone else. It's just that she's not like, 'Hey, look at me!' She's just part of the team."
So far, "Today's" audience has remained fairly steady, averaging about 5.78 million viewers through mid-December, 2% less than last season, according to Nielsen Media Research. The show has widened its lead over "Good Morning America," which lost longtime co-anchor Charles Gibson to the evening news last May. So far this season, ABC has averaged 4.95 million viewers, a drop of 6%. CBS' "The Early Show" lags far behind with 2.76 million, also down 6% from last season.
But "Today's" competitors believe the program has some vulnerabilities. Jim Murphy, senior executive producer of "GMA," noted that the ratings have fluctuated during the last several months, with NBC's lead swinging by as much as half a million people week to week. "It's all over the map, which I think would indicate that people are still moving around and shopping a little bit," he said. "I don't think their own audience fully accepts what has happened."