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Couric In, New Mom Norville Out at ‘Today’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ending months of speculation, NBC News President Michael Gartner gathered the staff of the “Today” show shortly after the end of the broadcast Thursday and announced that interim co-host Katie Couric would be Deborah Norville’s permanent replacement as co-anchor.

Within moments, the news that the 33-year-old Norville would be spending the next year at home with her new baby was flashed across the NBC in-house cable system, signaling what network executives hope will be a finish to one of the most tumultuous chapters in the morning show’s 39-year history.

“I think they’re happy,” said one NBC management source who asked not to be identified. “The ratings are up and just a fraction away from (morning ratings leader) ‘Good Morning America.’ ”

Former top-rated “Today” has been running behind ABC’s “Good Morning America” ever since Norville replaced Jane Pauley as co-anchor in January, 1990. Norville had joined the show as news anchor the previous August, and her hiring and on-air prominence in that role created the impression that she was being groomed to replace the older Pauley, angering many loyal viewers. Pauley, who had been with the show for 13 years, left a few months later to develop her current prime-time series, “Real Life With Jane Pauley.”

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But the ratings have risen since Couric took over when Norville went on maternity leave in February, leading to speculation that Norville would be replaced.

In a prepared statement released by NBC News on Thursday, Norville said that she wanted to spend at least the next year as a full-time mother.

“During the past month away from my day-to-day responsibilities, I’ve had time to reflect on the tumultuous last year and a half,” she said. “And perhaps my personal situation--being a new mother away from the spotlight--has allowed me to see clearly what I want to do: give my son the best possible start on life and practice good journalism. There is plenty of time for the latter but I’ll get only one chance to do the former.”

Norville issued a “special thank you from Niki” to viewers who had showered her new son with good wishes. He was born Feb. 27.

Couric, 34, who has been co-anchoring “Today” since Feb. 22, joined NBC News as deputy Pentagon correspondent in July, 1989, after a 3-year tenure as a reporter for the NBC-owned station in Washington, WRC-TV. She joined the “Today” staff last June as a correspondent, frequently sitting in as co-host in either Bryant Gumbel’s or Norville’s absence.

Couric spent August and September in Saudi Arabia for NBC News, shortly after U.S. troops were sent to the Persian Gulf to begin the build-up that climaxed last January in the Gulf War.

Couric is also expecting her first child this summer, but said that she accepted the challenge of her new job as “a wonderful opportunity for me--one that I certainly didn’t expect would come my way.”

“Katie’s somebody you can get up in the morning with,” said the NBC management source. “Bryant is coming across as more human, not threatened or threatening, and they have some young producers there now who are on a roll. There was a lot of applause and sighs (of relief, about the Couric announcement). They’re not going down the track anymore that seems to be going nowhere.”

Norville had taken the brunt of the criticism for NBC News executive Dick Ebersol’s decision to bring her on board at “Today,” leading Pauley to reassess her situation and decide to leave. Though she was praised by peers as a well-grounded and deserving journalist in her own right, Norville was quickly given a negative label for seeming to have overthrown the popular Pauley, for a rumored salary of $1 million a year.

She recently re-ignited controversy surrounding her professionalism by posing for a People magazine photograph while breast-feeding her son.

On Thursday, Gartner had nothing but praise for Norville’s work and decision to devote herself to her family.

“Deborah is a terrific anchor and reporter and has done excellent work for NBC News over the years--from ‘NBC News at Sunrise’ to ‘Today’ to reporting some of the most popular specials on NBC,” he said.

Couric joins Gumbel and the third “Today” co-anchor, Joe Garagiola, along with news anchor Faith Daniels, weatherman Willard Scott and arts critic Gene Shalit. Tom Capra, former news director of KNBC-TV Channel 4, is executive producer of “Today.”


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