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TELEVISION : Meet ‘Today’s’ New Wake-Up Call : 26-year-old Jeff Zucker’s job is to take Couric, Gumbel & Co. back to the top and keep them there

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The day that NBC learned last February that its “Today” show had beaten ABC’s “Good Morning America” in the weekly ratings for the first time in two years, the network went on the air with a week’s worth of TV promos thanking America for making “Today” the No. 1 morning-news show. How did NBC move so quickly? “The promos had been ready for a month,” executive producer Jeff Zucker confided.

The self-congratulation was short-lived: “Today” fell back to No. 2 the following week and has continued there since. But NBC perhaps can be forgiven its eagerness to celebrate. Two years after a highly publicized debacle (played out as a sunrise soap opera in the news media) in which NBC executives miscast Deborah Norville as the replacement for Jane Pauley and sent “Today’s” ratings south, the oldest of the network morning shows is on the rise.

“The ‘Today’ show self-destructed two years ago, and ‘Good Morning America’ has been riding on their success since that time,” said Zucker, a 26-year-old wunderkind who took charge last January after three years of working on the program. “We’ve got the best show and the best team of talent now in place, and we’re going to take back the lead.”

He and other NBC executives base their optimism on the decline in ‘Good Morning America’s” ratings over the past year--from an average of 4.7 million households a day during the first quarter of 1991 to 4 million during the first quarter of this year, while “Today” has climbed from about 3.5 million last year to 3.8 million this year. “Morning-news ratings move very slowly, but the momentum clearly is with us,” Zucker said.

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On the air, the “Today” cast looks like a happy family again. Katherine Couric, who replaced Norville as co-anchor a year ago, is proving to be popular. Bryant Gumbel, the show’s longtime anchor, appears to be enjoying his interviews and having someone who can return his occasional lob shots about hairstyle and clothing the way Jane Pauley used to do. And Gumbel’s feud with weatherman Willard Scott, sparked by a critical memo Gumbel wrote in 1989, seems to have been patched up, although they now communicate long-distance since Scott works out of Washington, D.C.

Zucker--variously nicknamed “Miles” after Miles Silverberg, the intense young producer on “Murphy Brown,” and “Doogie,” after ABC’s teen-age surgeon--has played an important role in the turnaround, which began last year when he was a supervising producer under executive producer Tom Capra. When Capra departed for a job in NBC’s West Coast entertainment division, Zucker was elevated to the helm, with backing from Couric and Gumbel.

“Katie and Bryant had confidence in Jeff, but he was also a smart, creative producer who was already doing much of the show as supervising producer,” said Steve Friedman, the executive producer of “NBC Nightly News” who produced “Today” when it rose from third to first place in the mid-1980s. “I think the feeling was that it made sense to give it to Jeff.”

Since being named executive producer, Zucker has been winning praise from TV critics by shaking up the traditional morning-news formats with hard-news coverage to roust viewers out of their morning slumber. Although he is a card-carrying member of the MTV generation, one of the innovations that Zucker has brought to “Today” has been to let segments go on as long as 8 to 10 minutes (an eternity in television) if the conversation warrants it. “I hate the rigidity of the morning-news shows,” Zucker said. “It’s 4 1/2 minutes and, ‘Well, Mr. Gorbachev, we’re out of time.’ I think viewers want more than that.”

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When David Duke appeared on “Today” for an interview recently, for example, Couric, a former reporter for Cable News Network and the NBC station in Washington, D.C., grilled him at length about his controversial views on race, presenting him with previous statements and comparing them to what Duke says he stands for today. It made for dramatic TV.

“The important difference with Jeff is that he is both a creative force and a managerial force,” Friedman said. “Some producers have tried to manage ‘Today’ and delegate the actual producing of it day-to-day; others have tried to produce it only. To be successful, you’ve got to do both. Jeff is doing that. He’s brought a creative spark to a show that was rudderless in the past, and he’s now got an opportunity to re-define what morning TV will be in the 1990s.”

When Zucker began as a producer on “Today” in January, 1989, the staff was understandably wary of this intellectual-looking Harvard graduate who had begun working in television in 1986 as a researcher for NBC Sports, which was preparing to cover the 1988 Summer Olympics. “When I first saw Jeff, he was wearing jeans and an old sweat shirt, the kind you wear in gym class,” recalled Couric, who began working with him in 1990 when she was named national correspondent and he was assigned to be her field producer. “He was cocky and full of himself in a cute way. I thought, ‘I can’t wait to cut this guy down to size.’ ”

Instead, Couric said, she found Zucker to be self-confident but nice, a newshound who was as adept at producing stories about the savings-and-loan crisis as interviews with soldiers in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War.

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“Jeff is a very quick study, and he can talk knowledgeably about politics, sports, history, social issues and other subjects,” Couric said. “He’s young, of course, but he’s not a teen-ager. He has a respect for the traditions of ‘Today’ while trying new ideas with the show.”

Zucker--who is said to be both a talent and, occasionally, a maniac, at calling the shots (literally) of live TV coverage in the “Today” control room--likes to tear up the scheduled segments and go with breaking news. The morning after the then-surprising results of the first presidential primary in New Hampshire, “Today” opened with half an hour of interviews by Gumbel and Couric with candidates Pat Buchanan and Sen. Paul Tsongas, scrapping regular segments, including the 15-minute mini-newscast.

“That same day, ‘Good Morning America’ was out on the set of ‘Home Improvement,’ ” Zucker said critically, referring to “GMA’s” February-sweeps coverage from the sets of popular TV series.

More recently, “Today” scrapped its regular coverage to discuss the crash of a US Air plane at LaGuardia Airport. Zucker, who was reading the news wires on his computer at home late Sunday night, saw reports of the crash and alerted a producer and a researcher to begin preparations for devoting the first half-hour of the next morning’s show to the disaster.

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The day after boxer Mike Tyson was convicted of rape, “Today” spent much of the show’s first half-hour discussing the case with the prosecuting attorney and others.

This is not revolutionary stuff, but it is startling to viewers who have been able to set their clocks and take their showers to the morning shows’ hidebound formats. “I love the thrill of breaking news, the knowledge that at any point during the broadcast, the show could go wrong,” Zucker said.

“Today” is even trying to bring more drama to that morning-show staple, the celebrity interview. “Bryant did a series on ‘JFK,’ ” Zucker said, referring to the controversial movie, and “we spent a lot of time on the interviews with (director) Oliver Stone and (star) Kevin Costner, talking about the issues raised by the film and their views on it.” And under Zucker, “Today” has gone after some younger musical guests such as Curtis Stigers and Color Me Badd.

Although the “Today” show has become more topical and interesting, it is the chemistry of the anchors that drives the network morning shows, as Zucker readily acknowledges, and he is careful to praise both of his co-anchors equally. “Katie’s made a huge difference to the show,” Zucker said. “She can do any kind of story, and she’s re-engaged Bryant and helped mellow him out. Bryant is the glue who holds the show together. He’s been doing this for 10 years, and he’s a master at live TV.”

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The addition of Couric has had a major impact on the way viewers perceive the “Today” cast. According to NBC audience research, viewers like her unaffected style, perceive that Gumbel is happier now that she’s there, and like the way the whole “Today” “family” relates to each other now.

Couric maintains a refreshing attitude about her new fame. “Yes, it’s all me,” she said, laughing, when asked about the theory that her arrival has boosted “Today.”

Gumbel has a reputation for sometimes being abrasive, but Couric said, “We’re having a great time together. He’s a provocative, tough interviewer. And he is so comfortable on TV. If they tell him there are 13 seconds to a commercial, he will give them exactly 13 seconds more.”

Couric admitted that she does find it irritating when Gumbel kids her about her appearance. “He doesn’t talk about my hair and clothes too often, but when he does, it kind of bugs me, to be honest, " said Couric, who also gets letters from viewers about the length of her skirts as well as the substance of her interviews.

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“I think he does it in good fun, but I don’t want too much attention paid to my looks--it’s sexist. I don’t think Bryant would think it was funny if I’d said his recent hairstyle made him look like Bart Simpson.”

Despite this minor difference of opinion, Couric and Gumbel (who declined to be interviewed for this article) are said to get along very well, and Zucker gets along well with both of them.

“Katie and Bryant and I do this show as a team,” Zucker said. “I think that they know that I have their best interests at heart. But at the same time, when I’m in the control room, I’m the one who has to make a tough call about the show, and I am willing to do that.”

Zucker said that it had been Gumbel’s idea, for example, to begin “Today” with the Pat Buchanan interview after the New Hampshire primary. He said that he could not recall overruling Gumbel on a story idea, but, he said, “It doesn’t work like that. I think people have the mistaken idea that Bryant is some kind of 800-pound gorilla. We work together--he and Katie and I respect each other very much.”

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“You can’t do a live, two-hour daily show if the anchors don’t think you know what you’re doing,” said Friedman, who cast Gumbel, a former sportscaster, as co-anchor on “Today” in 1982. “You’re in this together.”

Zucker, a native of Miami, had no previous experience in television when he was hired as a researcher for the 1988 Olympics. He had been editor of the Harvard Crimson, a breeding-ground for many prominent print journalists, but he had been planning to go to law school until a friend at NBC Sports got him the job there. He compiled thousands of pages of background material for the anchors on the Olympics. And, he says, “once I saw the inside of a control room, I was hooked.”

He worked with Gumbel, Jane Pauley and other NBC anchors during the Olympics, and afterward landed a job as a segment producer on “Today” in 1989. Moving quickly to more senior producing jobs, he gained a reputation for being skilled at live coverage, especially during the Persian Gulf War and, later, the failed Soviet coup.

“The first time that I produced the daily show in the control room (during the Gulf War) was the first time that I had ever done it,” Zucker recalled. “I’m sure people had questions about me; I would have had questions about me. But I had watched other people do it, and I just had the confidence that I could do it, too.”

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Zucker, who is single, gets up at 4:30 every morning and arrives at the “Today” show set by 5:30. After producing the show in the control room from 7 to 9 a.m., he has conference calls with the “Today” bureaus and starts thinking about the next day’s show. Working with the other staff members, he is said to come up with a lot of the stories that will be on the show. “I like the day-to-day planning of the show maybe more than some of my predecessors,” he said. Zucker also attends meetings with NBC executives about administrative matters, including the show’s annual budget, which, sources say, is $35 million.

One knock on Zucker is that he can be abrupt with subordinates. “I can be brusque with people,” he acknowledged. “I’m a perfectionist, and I get so wrapped up in this that sometimes I yell and lose my temper. I’m young; I still have something to learn about that.”

In contrast to the turmoil of the past, “Today” can look forward to stability among its on-air talent. Gumbel recently signed a contract for three more years on the show. Down-home weatherman Scott has re-upped through 1995, and Couric this week agreed to a five-year pact with the network. One exception: In the next few months, Margaret Larson is expected to succeed Faith Daniels as the news reader so that Daniels can concentrate on her “Closer Look” daytime news program.

Despite the optimism at “Today"--"I think we’ll be in first place by the end of the year,” Zucker predicts--the producers of “Good Morning America” aren’t making any concession speeches. “Those promos were bush league,” said Jack Reilly, “GMA’s” executive producer. “We are still the No. 1 show.”

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Spencer Christian, “GMA’s” weatherman, recently began sitting on the “GMA” couch with co-anchors Charles Gibson and Joan Lunden, which NBC executives interpreted as a move to increase the “family” feeling on “GMA.” But Reilly denied that suggestion and said that ABC plans no major changes in response to “Today’s” ratings increase.

“We’ve added several contributors such as (physician) Nancy Snyderman,” said Reilly. “But we’re not looking over our shoulder at what they’re doing--we’re doing our own show well. I expected that it would be more of a horse race with Katie Couric; she’s been a real plus for them and has helped solve some of their problems with the co-anchor in the past. It may go back and forth between our two shows for a while, but we’ll continue to be No. 1.”

“I just think our show is more spontaneous and less married to a routine than ‘Good Morning America,’ ” Couric mused. “We’re more aggressive about news. They’re nice and comfortable. We’re a little more dangerous--as dangerous as morning television can be.”


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