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The alliance behind 'Today' show's success


NEW YORK - By now, the story's become part of the Katie Couric legend.

In October 1992, Couric, still a relatively new face on NBC's venerable morning news program Today, was finishing a live tour of the White House with then-first lady Barbara Bush when a surprise guest wandered into the Blue Room - President George H.W. Bush himself.

Bush apparently had planned just to say a quick hello on national television, but a poised Couric kept him there for 19 minutes. She quizzed him about the burgeoning Iran-contra scandal and his recent debate performance against Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, confirming her journalistic credentials in the process.

Though it was not apparent to viewers that day, another crucial dynamic was also at work: Couric's symbiotic relationship with Jeff Zucker, then Today's executive producer. From his perch inside a satellite truck parked in the White House driveway, he shouted questions into her earpiece, helping her turn the chance encounter into a newsmaker interview.

First paired in 1990 when he produced the segments she did as a national correspondent for the program, Zucker's brash, hyperkinetic style and Couric's unflappable charm quickly proved a winning combination. By the next year, they had risen to the top slots at Today, where the relentlessly driven producer - just 26 - helped the novice anchor hone her "America's sweetheart" persona.

Together, they helped catapult Today back on top of the morning-show pack, where it has remained for nearly a decade. Along the way, they forged one of the most successful and profitable partnerships in broadcast news.

That relationship continued after Zucker left the program to climb the network ladder in 2000, providing Couric with a strong ally in NBC's executive suites. But since then, a persistent unsettledness has hung over Today, where yet another executive producer - the third in five years - was installed in April, after a harsh wake-up call from ABC's surging Good Morning America.

Now president of NBC Universal Television Group, Zucker said the recent change in management was prompted solely by the show's dip in the ratings - not by any demands by Couric.

Meanwhile, her carefree "girl-next-door" image that Zucker so carefully cultivated has evolved - and not always to public acclaim, especially after a $60 million contract thrust her into an elite world of celebrity and wealth. Now 48, the Arlington, Va.-reared Couric has shucked the traditional anchor coif for a sleek bob, and she sports trendy tunics, leopard-print skirts and chandelier earrings on the air.

In an interview, Zucker would not comment on Couric's frustrations with his successors except to acknowledge that they likely suffered by comparison.

"Obviously, she and I had a unique relationship, and you can never duplicate something like that," he said.

Zucker has been under unusual and increasing pressure to boost the standing of NBC. The network fell to fourth place this year in the key 18- to 49-year-old demographic, a drop that forced NBC to cut ad rates for next year.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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