Vieira gets change of 'View'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As expected, NBC moved swiftly yesterday to fill the void left by Katie Couric's defection to CBS with Meredith Vieira as co-host of Today.

Vieira, who will join Matt Lauer at the anchor desk in September, held back tears yesterday as she announced her decision to join TV's top-rated morning show on ABC's The View, where she has served as one of five co-anchors since its debut in 1997.

"I know that part of their reasoning [at NBC] for offering me this job is that I have 20 years of news [experience], but the other part is because of the nine years I've been here," she told viewers. "I believe in growth, but right now I'm feeling terrific growing pains."

Not only was the choice of the 52-year-old mother of three a fast one, analysts are calling it a near-perfect one as well, based on Vieira's TV persona and the package of talents that she brings to one of the highest-visibility jobs in television - a job that will pay her $10 million a year for four years. Her eclectic resume spans the vast gulf from correspondent on CBS' 60 Minutes, the most prestigious newsmagazine in network history, to host of the syndicated Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and pitchwoman for Bayer aspirin.

"Like Katie Couric, she is an extremely well-known commodity and very, very popular," said Lee Thornton, a former CBS News White House correspondent and anchorwoman who now holds the Eaton chair in broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"Meredith has the added value of having been a serious journalist a while back, and we now know that she can handle entertainment and light talk just fine. She will walk up to that seat at Today, sit down and just have no trouble whatsoever. People know her history, know who she is, and like her."

A 1975 graduate of Tufts University, the Rhode Island native started her broadcast career as a newsreader at a small radio station in Worcester, Mass. By the early 1980s, she had worked her way up to reporting jobs at the CBS-owned station in New York and the CBS News bureau in Chicago.

Thornton, who crossed paths with Vieira in the world of CBS News in those years, said, "She was considered quite beautiful with those high cheekbones and that creamy complexion - you know, the kind of things other women notice and talk about privately, but never admit publicly. People talked about her looks."

Vieira met her husband, Richard Cohen, at CBS, where he was working as a producer for CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. They were married in New York in 1986.

"From the time that she burst on the scene in the early '80s as a local reporter at WCBS in New York City, she was a magnetic star," Andrew Heyward, then a young CBS producer and friend of Vieira's who would go on to become president of CBS News, said in a telephone interview.

"It was obvious from her writing ability, her charismatic appearance and her voice that she was destined for great things. And then over time, this very distinctive, quick, smart and funny personality was allowed to come out on the air - especially during her years on The View."

Vieira won four Emmys while a correspondent for the innovative CBS newsmagazine West 57th - and, in 1989, she was promoted to co-editor of 60 Minutes, one of the highest-rated and most lucrative programs in TV history.

She had her first son, Ben, that year, but when she tried to cut back on her work schedule in 1991 after becoming pregnant again, 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt drew the line, insisting that he needed full-time editors and correspondents.

The row became public and nasty, and Vieira came to symbolize career women faced with tough choices between home and workplace. She chose home, leaving 60 Minutes and ultimately CBS before joining ABC News in 1993 as a correspondent on its newsmagazine Turning Point. Among the awards she won at ABC News: a 1995 Robert F. Kennedy prize for a report on Baltimore's attempt to mainstream disabled students in public schools.

In the late 1990s, Vieira branched off into entertainment programs, serving as host of the Miss America Pageant in 1998. She has also appeared on the soap operas All My Children and General Hospital, as well as in the Broadway musical Thoroughly Modern Millie and a film remake of The Stepford Wives.

In 1997, Barbara Walters, the first woman to anchor a network's nightly newscast, invited Vieira to join her new daytime talk show, The View. Though she then thought being on the show might appear to some as a major comedown from her days of doing hard news, Vieira now says accepting the offer was one of the best career moves she ever made.

"A couple of days of being ashamed, and then I went, 'Oh, this is great. ... ' We don't pretend to do journalism, though Barbara Walters and I have that background," Vieira says in the May issue of More magazine. "But women want to hear our positions. They wanted to hear from us after 9/11."

Like the other hosts of The View, Vieira regularly shares her personal life with viewers as part of the show. One aspect that is most widely known and discussed is that her husband suffers from multiple sclerosis and colon cancer.

In his 2004 book, Blindsided, Cohen writes: "Meredith's decision to choose children over the fountain of fame took enormous guts. That is Meredith. The commitment to family, a determination to be true to self, can see a person through any crisis, including illness."

There is irony in the fact that her acceptance yesterday of NBC's offer will make her one of the most famous media figures in American life. If she and Lauer prove to be as successful a team as Couric and Lauer were for 10 years, 6 million people will be watching her every weekday on NBC.

As of last week, Good Morning America was only 1.07 million viewers behind Today, and ABC is sure to make a run at NBC next fall with its highly successful morning team of Diane Sawyer and Charles Gibson. As solid a choice as Vieira seems to be, there is no guarantee of anchor desk chemistry.

In 1989, NBC replaced Jane Pauley with Deborah Norville as Bryant Gumbel's co-anchor on Today, and the ratings plummeted until Couric arrived in 1991. The institutional memory is apparently so painful that NBC President Jeff Zucker yesterday overlooked Norville in a statement linking Vieira to past female co-hosts of Today.

But the consensus among those in the news business is that Vieira - like Bob Schieffer, who graciously welcomed Couric to CBS yesterday as his replacement - is one of the rare network stars who understands that there is life beyond the weekly Nielsen scorecard.

"I had periods when I was doing what was presumably one of the best jobs in television, particularly at 60 Minutes, yet I wasn't happy," Vieira says in More. "My life circumstances just didn't work with that job. It's a scary thing to step back and say, well, what do you really want? Particularly when people are saying, 'You have this incredible career; why would you second-guess it?' If I've learned anything, it's that it is good to second-guess it."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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