NBC Looks to ‘Today’s’ Tomorrows : Television: By replacing Deborah Norville with the more accessible Katie Couric, the network has found a way out of its unhappy dilemma.

At least NBC provided Deborah Norville with a graceful exit from the “Today” show.

It was the only decent thing for the network to do following her highly scrutinized, sometimes humiliating and generally uncomfortable tenure of more than a year on the series.

In the 14 months after she replaced Jane Pauley on “Today,” the venerable and once-proud morning flagship of NBC never once finished first in the weekly ratings.

But even if you disliked Norville--and resented the way Pauley was forced out to make room for her--the real culprit in the affair was NBC, which plotted the abortive transition and eventually had the good sense to admit its mistake.

NBC finally ended this unhappy period of “Today” history on Thursday by announcing that Norville, who gave birth to a son on Feb. 27, had decided to focus her next year on motherhood--and was being replaced by Katie Couric.


As it happens, Couric, who apparently has helped “Today” increase its ratings while subbing for Norville since February, is also pregnant--and due to have her baby in mid-July. But, she says, she expects to be gone from “Today” only about two months.

“I’ll probably take off the first or second week in July,” she adds. “I don’t want to have the baby on the (“Today”) couch.”

It could be that the apparently fortuitous choice of Couric to become Bryant Gumbel’s new co-anchor is just what NBC has been looking for to breathe new life into the resilient, 39-year-old “Today” series, the granddaddy of network morning shows.

While ABC’s “Good Morning America” is still the ratings leader of TV’s wake-up programs, runner-up “Today” probably now has its most positive public image in several years.

Even before Thursday’s announcement that Couric had won the coveted job, NBC had been pointing out the sudden ratings impetus of “Today” in the last month or so--in short, ever since she had started subbing for Norville.

In naming Couric as the permanent replacement for Norville, NBC News President Michael Gartner noted, “As the past few weeks have shown, she’s a popular anchor.” Translation: good ratings, higher tune-in.

Norville, who probably was never forgiven by some viewers for seeming too willing a participant in the format that unseated Pauley, was a cooler, more distant anchor than Couric. Although she was graduated summa cum laude from the University of Georgia and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Norville, like countless female--and male--anchors, somehow seemed to have been molded to fit the typical, glossy TV image. It may well have been off-putting, perhaps too formal, for viewers just crawling out of bed.

Couric, on the other hand, is eminently more accessible, a down-to-earth, girl-next-door type who has shown that she can hold her own in the strong presence of Gumbel. They seem to enjoy their sometimes feisty give-and-take.

A native of Washington, a graduate of the University of Virginia and the wife of attorney Jay Monahan, Couric formerly worked for CNN, joined NBC News in 1989 as a deputy Pentagon reporter and was national correspondent for “Today” since last June.

Equally important in terms of “Today” casting, Couric has no direct connection with the Pauley incident, the lingering effect of which surely helped end Norville’s days on the series.

NBC’s error in originally teaming Norville on stage with Pauley and Gumbel had created a lasting negative image that accelerated the show’s nose-dive. Norville, ram-rodded into intrusive prominence by her network, came across as an interloper, putting heat on the popular Pauley, a “Today” fixture.

After Pauley left and the series continued to plummet, Dick Ebersol, who ran “Today” and had recruited Norville as the new co-anchor, resigned, taking blame for the problems.

It was, in short, not a situation that Norville had created, although she was taking the fall day after day as ratings dropped. She may have been ambitious, but it was NBC management that created her basic dilemma.

“If you’re bringing some great new hope aboard, you have to give them some kind of protection,” said competing anchor Paula Zahn of “CBS This Morning,” defending Norville at the height of her unpopularity.

Couric says the criticism of Norville was “totally unfair and unfounded. She was put in a situation where she was portrayed as somebody she wasn’t and supposedly instigated something that she didn’t. And that came on the heels of Jane of Arc, who was loved by everybody.

“Deborah is a very capable journalist and hard worker, and she handled herself beautifully in a difficult situation.”

At one point while still on “Today,” Norville admitted it had been “hurtful” to be portrayed “in such ugly ways” and “as some person who would stoop to any level to get a job. It would be one thing if I had been that kind of player. But I can’t help how this situation was managed.”

In a sane TV environment, Pauley might still be co-anchor of “Today” and all of the past year’s headaches might never have happened. But TV’s mad pursuit of youth made Pauley, who was 39 when “Today” displaced her, seem like an antique. Norville was 31 at the time. And “Today” was concerned because “Good Morning America” was attracting younger viewers.

Big deal.

If that kind of absurd thinking persists, Couric, 34, can start getting her resume together right now because she’ll have four or five years, at the most, on “Today.” Pauley had 13, and she’s a bigger, more admired personality now than ever before as she heads into her 40s.

In the end, the Norville-Pauley affair was classic proof of the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And who can forget the on-air hug of Pauley and Norville that marked the passing of the baton on the “Today” series--an embrace of sublime show-biz flair, and just as believable?

Both now are gone from “Today,” but the series endures, as it has for four decades. Katie Couric got herself a good job.