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`Today' maintains lead as revamp nears

September 05, 2006|David Bauder | Associated Press

NEW YORK — The first part of the "Today" show summer mystery has been answered affirmatively: Viewers did not abandon morning television's pacesetter because Katie Couric left after 15 years.

Now comes the second, more important question. Will those same viewers embrace Meredith Vieira?

Vieira has been studying current events and promoting "Today" this summer as NBC, which smoothly segued from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams in the evening two years ago while keeping its ratings lead, tries to pull it off in the morning.

The former CBS newswoman and co-host of "The View" starts Sept. 13, the same day NBC reveals a new, completely rebuilt studio in Rockefeller Center.

Despite broadcasting from temporary quarters with a rotating series of substitutes, the "Today" winning streak of more than 10 years in the ratings hasn't been threatened this summer. In the first nine weeks after Couric's departure, "Today" had 19% more viewers than ABC's second-place "Good Morning America," compared with 17% in Couric's last nine weeks, according to Nielsen Media Research.

"We feel like we responded well," said Jim Bell, executive producer of "Today." "We have a good plan in place and it seems to be working."

NBC had planned the extreme studio makeover since before Vieira even considered the job. Because "Today" will begin broadcasting in high-definition this fall, NBC needed to completely rewire and replace equipment, Bell said.

Vieira and co-host Matt Lauer have already filmed happy-talk promos with morning teams at more than 30 affiliates, all designed to introduce her to the NBC "family."

The first on-screen personnel change in a decade at "Today" would seem to open the door for its rivals to take a run at the top. But ABC just brought in a new off-screen chief executive for "GMA" and was auditioning male newsreaders for an opening left by Charles Gibson, before selecting Chris Cuomo in late August. As for "The Early Show," CBS has other priorities now.

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