TV News, Women and Deborah Norville : Her ascension on the 'Today' show revives the Beauty Factor issue in broadcast news

It's a few minutes before 7 a.m., showtime on the "Today" show. The white clouds have been freshly spray-painted on the weather map, as they are every day on the sunnyside-up "Today" set in NBC's Rockefeller Center. But the real-life weather on the venerable NBC News show is more honest than this morning's forecast: "delightfully mild." With all the attention to Jane Pauley's impending departure, the co-hosts for today (and permanently, starting in January) are showing some signs of wear at being the stars of a domestic drama played out before millions.

Bryant Gumbel--a man not given to fake pleasantries under any circumstances--is in a grumpy start-up mode. And Deborah Norville--who was unfailingly bright-eyed and cheerful writing copy at 4 a.m. as the graveyard-shift anchor on "NBC News at Sunrise"--makes a rare flub as she reads the news on "Today."

"I could do it if I hadn't gotten just three hours sleep," Norville says off-camera. She quietly calls up the latest news bulletins on a laptop computer in the dark while listening to an interview by Gumbel in another section of the studio.

The show turns out to be one with which the producers are pleased. Norville, who is subbing this morning for Pauley in addition to reading the news, gets author Stephen King to talk about how a seemingly mild-mannered fellow writes all those horrific stories. And Gumbel mixes it up with former boxing champions Muhammad Ali, Ken Norton, Joe Frazier and Larry Holmes in an engaging interview that has the feel of good buddies talking.

But there's none of the "Moonlighting"-style repartee that characterized the on-camera relationship between Gumbel and Pauley, with Pauley returning a Gumbel macho serve with a ladylike lob to the baseline. In fact, compared to Pauley, who mastered the art of reacting to what was going on during the show over 13 years as co-host, Norville reacts hardly at all, seemingly more comfortable with reading the day's headlines and doing interviews than engaging in easy chit-chat. Add to that her beautiful face and precisely put-together style--elegant navy suit and coiffed blonde hair--and you've got someone who can seem just a little too perfect--"a Stepford anchor," as one critic put it.

"She doesn't let anybody into her head, so she can seem like an automaton on the air," says one network executive. "You can't succeed on TV five days a week, two hours a day, unless the true person comes out--and the audience likes what they see."

It's something Norville is working on. "This job is radically different from any I've had before," says the 31-year-old Norville, who recently was named to succeed Pauley in an emotional, on-air passing-of-the-alarm clock ceremony. "I know that sitting on the couch doing the interview and chatting back and forth is something in which one has to inject one's personality. It's a learning experience for me--and I think I can learn. All I can say is, don't shoot me before I'm in the saddle--let me get up there and ride a bit."

The story of how Deborah Norville came to succeed Jane Pauley as the next co-anchor on "Today"--a decision made, like most in TV, by male executives for female viewers--is so tied up with the role of women in TV news and, symbolically, women in general that it's hard to see Deborah Norville as an individual, sitting here in her NBC office. Her initial promotion last August, after only 2 1/2 years in network news, to a million-dollar contract and an expanded role as news anchor on "Today" set off a chain reaction that led to Pauley's decision to leave the program after 13 years.

Norville, who replaced veteran John Palmer, was seated side by side with Pauley in a role that Palmer had not played. The placement of the two women (which Pauley says she was not told about) made Norville look, as one critic described it, like the predatory Eve Harrington in the movie "All About Eve."

NBC executives misjudged Pauley's reaction to the change--and the reaction of female viewers. Pauley, who, according to NBC's own research, is very popular with the daytime audience, was perceived as being discarded for a younger, hungrier rival at the not-ready-for-retirement age of 39. And viewers responded--with thousands of angry letters and phone calls to NBC.

That's not the kind of reaction network executives want from the early-morning audience, where it takes years to build a following and where women outnumber men in the audience by a margin of two to one. "There are a lot of women out there who identify with Jane Pauley as a young, working mom," says one network executive who has studied the daytime audience. "Deborah Norville's appeal to women has not yet been tested--and now she's started out being depicted as a villainess."

The outpouring of affection for Pauley reached a fever pitch last month when Pauley joined her morning-news counterparts--ABC's Joan Lunden and CBS' Kathleen Sullivan--on Phil Donahue's syndicated talk show a few days after announcing her departure from "Today." Donahue called NBC News executives "the real bimbos" in the situation, and caller after caller said, "I'm angry about what happened" and "We love you, Jane."

At the same time, however, they didn't say, "We hate you, Deborah," which is something Norville is counting on when she takes over as co-anchor. In fact, she contends, it was the way the story was written--not the way events actually unfolded--that was sexist.

" 'Younger, blonder' Deborah Norville--give me a break," says Norville, her voice showing more edge, and more of her native Georgia accent, than she displays on the air. "If I'd been a 31-year-old man going on as news anchor, there wouldn't be nearly as much ink about this. Are we saying that women can't share the same masthead on a publication or work in a law firm together? It's out-and-out sexism--and it denigrates the years I've spent trying to grow as a reporter."

Norville says that she's beginning to get some letters from young women who resent the implication of jokes like her photo cropping up, "Jaws"-like, in chairs on the David Letterman show, or Johnny Carson saying that Norville was lurking in the background--"with a banana peel"--when Tom Brokaw was pacing atop the Berlin Wall recently. The jokes, she said, have taken some of the pleasure out of achieving a dream job.

"Jane and I are friends and, when you know the real story, it hurts to see the way it was depicted. I never came onto the program with any thought other than that I would be reading the news and sitting in for Bryant and Jane occasionally while they were away."

Nevertheless, some TV observers say that, in today's increasingly star-driven newscasts, Norville simply wouldn't have risen so quickly if she weren't so beautiful. "It's ridiculous for NBC executives to suggest that Deborah Norville got the 'Today' show job on the strengh of her merits as a reporter," says Dan Ruth, the Chicago Sun-Times TV critic who followed Norville's career as a local anchor and reporter at Chicago's WMAQ-TV. "John Palmer had 26 years of experience. And what about Lisa Myers and Andrea Mitchell, two NBC reporters who've covered the White House and presidential campaigns? Are they too inexperienced?"

To be fair to Norville, it takes some "star" presence to be a network anchor. What's disturbing about women anchors today is the double-standard: Diane Sawyer is both gorgeous and smart, but Charles Kuralt makes it more on brains and talent than beauty.

Norville--who says she is offended by all the emphasis on her looks instead of her abilities--nevertheless does not question the elements of beauty in TV in general. "There aren't too many men in TV news who look like Charles Kuralt," she says. "TV has a visual aspect and, apart from their other skills, TV is full of beautiful people. We don't put ugly stories on the air, either--we're very careful when we put our news reports together that we don't have jump cuts or something that's visually jarring up there while we try to impart what is, one hopes, useful, important information."

"The men who make the programming decisions in TV news--and they're almost invariably men--want to put on women anchors who are beautiful, and preferably blonde," says one dark-haired, middle-aged female TV correspondent who didn't want her name used. They also seem to treat the few women TV anchors practically as if there were interchangeable, corporate beauty queens, to be wooed away from each other as if they were potential dates, not serious journalists.

"There are plenty of talented reporters out there in the country," says one male TV executive, "but these guys often look no further than down the street." ABC woos Diane Sawyer away from CBS, so CBS signs Connie Chung from NBC. And NBC signs Mary Alice Williams from CNN. Those women all have paid their dues alongside male reporters.

In their quest for dial-stopping personalities on the morning shows, TV executives have gone so far as to hire a former Miss America, Phyllis George, as the anchor for the "CBS Morning News." George, who had experience as a sportscaster but not as a journalist, went on to make several embarrassing gaffes as a news anchor--for example, asking a woman and her alleged rapist to make peace with an on-air "hug." She was removed from the job in 1985 after eight months on the air.

Without a combination of skills, says Norville, no newscaster would be able to sustain being on the air. "Look how long Phyllis George lasted on the air. I may have been on the national scene for three years, but I worked for nine years as a local reporter and anchor. Nine years is not yesterday."

One of four sisters in a Dalton, Ga., family, Norville was brought up to be an achiever. "My parents never pushed us, but they instilled in us a feeling that we could do anything we wanted to do," she recalls. "My mother had been vice president of a manufacturing firm before she married, so I was never raised to be a Southern belle."

Her parents divorced when Norville was 14. Her mother, who was ill with rheumatoid arthritis for many years, died when Norville was still in college. Although she says she thought she was "geeky"-looking, she became Georgia's Junior Miss at age 17. She decided to become a TV journalist when she saw the TV news crews at work at the pageant.

Majoring in broadcast journalism at the University of Georgia, she was Phi Beta Kappa (with a 4.0 average) while working as an intern at two local stations during her senior year. Her college roommate, Leah Keith, recalls that Norville was so energetic that she seemed to "roll her hair and brush her teeth at the same time."

She went to work as a reporter for WAGA-TV in Atlanta in 1978 before being hired as a reporter and anchor by WMAQ-TV, the NBC station in Chicago. She won a local news Emmy and was such a popular personality that Harold Washington, the late mayor of the city, once declared a "Deborah Norville Week" in her honor. Norville was hired by NBC in January, 1987, to be the anchor for "NBC News at Sunrise."

Her life did not leave much time for romance. When mutual friends set her up on a blind date with businessman Karl Wellner, she agreed to meet him for a drink between work engagements. "Karl swears that I said, 'I can squeeze you in between 5:45 and 7:15 p.m.,' " says Norville, who married Wellner two years ago. "He has the patience of a saint to put up with my schedule." Wellner--who operates a Manhattan fine-arts autcion house--was watching at home when Pauley hugged Norville, and the two clasped hands as Pauley announced her departure on the air.

So what really happened backstage on "Today"?

According to people familiar with the situation, Norville was part of a youth strategy that backfired.

In May, Dick Ebersol, recently named president of NBC Sports, was given the additional job of being the NBC News executive in charge of "Today." Ebersol--who has a diverse background in sports and entertainment (ranging from being Roone Arledge's assistant at ABC Sports to producing "Saturday Night Live" and a Saturday-night wrestling program)--was brought in to make changes in "Today." The NBC News program was still No. 1 in the overall ratings, but it was losing viewers to ABC's "Good Morning America" in a key demographic: 18- to 49-year-olds. The hiring of Norville--who was touted by NBC executives as a rising young star--was an attempt to bring in younger viewers.

"Bringing in Deborah was a creative decision to change the way we did the news," Ebersol says. "It wasn't a bunch of boys in a room making a decision. Instead of 'ripping and reading' the news, I wanted to have it involve the people on the show as well as newsmakers. On 'NBC News at Sunrise,' Deborah showed a unique ability to balance the newscasts and as many as six separate personalities on that show."

By adding Norville, he says, "I certainly never intended to lose Jane." A close friend of Bryant Gumbel's, Ebersol says that he had meetings with Pauley and Gumbel to explain the changes and that they signed off on them. Notes Norville, who had been an occasional substitute host on "Today," "The day they asked me to be news anchor, I said, 'Have you talked to Bryant and Jane?'--and then I talked to them myself. I was happy on 'Sunrise'--I didn't want to be someplace where I wasn't welcome."

According to sources close to her, Pauley felt that Norville's role had been expanded at her expense, and she was concerned about the future direction of "Today," which is getting a new senior executive producer in January and may be revamped.

"Deborah was never the centerpiece of our discussions," says Pauley, although she acknowledges that she probably wouldn't have been prompted to leave the show had Norville not been moved in beside her. Pauley--who surprised Ebersol and NBC News President Michael Gartner by simply asking to terminate her contract--has emerged with a sweet deal from NBC. The network has given her a 52-week commitment (an eternity in TV news) for a prime-time magazine show, in addition to specials and occasional appearances on "NBC Nightly News."

According to one new published report, NBC was rushed into giving Norville the "Today" job because CBS came after her to replace Kathleen Sullivan on "CBS This Morning." Both Ebersol and Norville's agent, Jim Griffin, deny the account, saying that Norville would not have been free to talk to a competitor with two years to go on her contract. But other sources say that CBS approached Norville six months ago, before her appointment as news anchor, and that Griffin recently said privately that he'd had Norville signed up elsewhere if the NBC news anchor arrangements hadn't gone through.

At any rate, Pauley soon will be leaving "Today." And Deborah Norville will soon be getting up at 3:30 a.m. to greet the dawn--and millions of "Today" show viewers. Staffers at "Today" have longtime loyalties to Pauley, and they say that it's hard to get a read on Norville, who is fiercely private. "When she came aboard as news anchor, she sent out a note to the staff saying that she wanted to work with everyone," says one staff member, "but it's hard to tell how she'll be--and what changes might come to the show in the future."

Seated at her desk in a small office decorated with Oriental prints, Norville contemplates her future on "Today."

"Jane was my friend in the morning before she was my friend in person," she notes. It won't be easy to succeed Pauley, especially given the way the move was played out. But, as Norville points out, Pauley, too, was criticized as inexperienced when she was hired for "Today" as a 25-year-old in 1976.

"When Jane came on to replace Barbara Walters, she was criticized for everything," Norville says. "Everyone predicted gloom and doom for Jane. But she proved them wrong."

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