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Vieira's serious and silly sides show on her `first day of school'

September 14, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Sitting behind a gleaming new white desk, scores of "Today" fans waving through the windows behind her, Meredith Vieira looked positively giddy Wednesday as she started her first day on the job.

The new co-anchor of NBC's top-rated morning show drummed her fingers on the desk and giggled nervously as Matt Lauer welcomed her "to our family and to our team."

"I feel like it's the first day of school and I'm sitting next to the cutest guy, you know?" she gushed, clasping his hands with hers.

Lauer said he has "not been so excited to come to work since the day after Bryant [Gumbel] announced he was leaving," referring to his predecessor.

The chumminess continued throughout the morning. Vieira high-fived news reader Ann Curry, teased weatherman Al Roker ("I'm particularly fond of you because I had a hamster named Al growing up") and received a bouquet of flowers from "NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams.

Beyond the lovefest, Vieira's first appearance on "Today" was designed to showcase her self-deprecating, down-to-earth manner, a style producers think will be Vieira's biggest asset in replacing Katie Couric.

During a video montage of her life and career, which included an early clip of the then-novice reporter earnestly embracing a snowman, the 52-year-old admitted that she fell into her career.

Throughout the program, Vieira cracked jokes about her age -- "I'm going to be the broad in broadcasting" -- and admitted how nervous she was about her new gig.

"Ultimately, I want people to see me as just me: a normal person, trying to get through the day, just like they are," she said.

Though Vieira's arrival on "Today" has been largely overshadowed by Couric's move last week to "CBS Evening News," NBC has not shrunk from promoting its new anchor. Throughout the show, the picture cut away to shots of a plane flying a "Welcome Meredith" banner over the New York skyline.

Vieira's first day also coincided with the unveiling of the new "Today" set -- an ultramodern, stylized room designed in a palette of whites. Behind the new cream-colored couch, a wall of incandescent glass cubes was cast in soft oranges and yellows. After presenting Vieira with her welcoming bouquet, Williams quipped that he was waiting for his seaweed wrap.

Wednesday's program wasn't all levity. Vieira -- a longtime co-host of "The View" and a veteran of "60 Minutes" -- did have a chance to show her news chops during a sit-down with "Meet the Press" moderator Tim Russert. She seemed at ease discussing the political implications of President Bush's Sept. 11 anniversary speech and the White House strategy for buttressing public support for Iraq.

But most of the program was devoted to the kind of celebratory antics for which "Today" is well-known. Producers surprised Vieira with a live feed from the Quaker girls school she attended in Providence, R.I., where the students and several of her friends had gathered to celebrate her first day.

And in a taped piece, Vieira spun jubilantly around in Rockefeller Plaza, flinging a red beret off her head a la Mary Tyler Moore.

The three-hour show concluded with a montage of the day's program, scenes of Vieira doubled over in laughter and ribbing her new co-workers, moments already gilded in nostalgia.

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