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Matt Lauer Gets Set for Dawn of a New ‘Today’

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Monday will be the biggest day of Matt Lauer’s life, his dream come true, as history is made at the venerable “Today” show and a new chapter in morning television begins.

On the other hand, Lauer would prefer that “Today” viewers not go blowing things all out of proportion.

Fact: Monday at 7 a.m., Lauer will officially succeed Bryant Gumbel, the “Today” host who took office early in the Reagan presidency and now leaves NBC’s 45-year-old program in its best shape ever (including its 54-weeks-and-counting ratings dominance over ABC rival “Good Morning America”).

And then?

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“It’s not so much a matter of how the audience reacts to Matt, because Matt’s been there,” Lauer says. “It’s a matter of how they react to Bryant’s not being there,” an absence that commences with a final “goodbye” on Friday, then a new job, as yet undisclosed but rumored to be at ABC.

“For the moment,” Lauer sums up, “I’m the footnote to the story.”

That may sound gracious to a fault, but he has a point. By now, he is a known quantity to “Today” viewers.

He first substituted as host four years ago and since then has filled in scores of times for Gumbel as well as for co-anchor Katie Couric.

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He became an official member of the team in January 1994 as news anchor, which calls for reciting headlines, conducting the occasional interview and swapping jovial quips with his “Today” conferees on a daily basis.

Self-described as “a quick study and a cool head,” Lauer, who just turned 39, has displayed on-air polish and a prismatic appeal.

Such skills were honed during years in TV news and talk at the local level. But it was a career that seemed prematurely at its end in 1991 when he was dismissed as host of an interview program on New York City’s WWOR. Weeks later, with bills to pay, he applied for a job near his Westchester home as a tree surgeon.

But before he got his hands on a chain saw, he was hired as anchor of a WNBC newscast. The “Today” show, with its national audience, was just a few floors away.

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A year ago, when Gumbel announced he was stepping down from “Today” on his 15th anniversary, Lauer seemed a shoo-in as successor. As the months passed and no other candidate emerged, his promotion seemed all the more a slam-dunk.

Finally, making no more news than if it had confirmed Clinton’s reelection, NBC News two weeks ago officially named Lauer as co-host, joining Couric. Weather-caster Al Roker remains on board of course, and a replacement news anchor will be announced later.

Now that it’s all out in the open, let there be no doubt that Lauer is psyched.

“I probably have not been so vocal about it up to now, simply because I didn’t want to sound like, ‘Hey, Bryant, I’m gunning for your job,’ ” Lauer says of the role-model-turned-friend with whose family he has spent the past three Christmases. “But I’ve always thought he had the best job in TV.”

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Starting Monday that job is Lauer’s, as he claims the chair Gumbel filled so well for so long, and begins, a bit gingerly, the process of replacing the irreplaceable.

“I don’t know if you can downplay how deeply woven Bryant Gumbel is into the fabric of this show,” Lauer says, “and I think there’ll be a time when his absence will be greatly noticeable and maybe my emergence might not be so noticeable.

“I would imagine that ‘Good Morning America’ would take this opportunity to make some changes, and come after us very hard,” he adds.

“But the important thing for me is not to go on the air and force it, not to say, ‘I’ve arrived!,’ but just to take it slowly, to let it evolve.

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“Six months from now, people are going to wake up and say, ‘You know, the “Today” show has changed in tone.’ I’m not sure which direction it’s gonna go. But it will be a different show.”

But that’s a bunch of todays from now. Come Monday, said Lauer, doing what he can to rein in expectations, “a member of the family will slide over a chair.”

* “Today” airs weekdays at 7 a.m. on NBC.


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