IT was holiday time on "Today," and Meredith Vieira was quizzing Martha Stewart about picking a Christmas tree.
"Do you get the real thing, or do you like to fake it?" Vieira asked the domestic doyenne, her face fixed in an innocent expression.
"I do both," Stewart said, going on to explain the benefits of using artificial trees.
Vieira's subtle double-entendre might have gone unnoticed if Joy Behar, her former co-host from ABC's "The View," hadn't been on later in the show to promote her new children's book. She pounced on the exchange. "That was very slippery of you -- the old Meredith slipping in from 'The View!' " said Behar, chortling as Vieira grinned guiltily.
There's no question the 53-year-old broadcaster has toned it down since her days moderating the ABC coffee klatch. But three months after succeeding Katie Couric as co-anchor of NBC's "Today," Vieira's clearly feeling more at ease in her role on the morning powerhouse, evident in the frequent flashes of her impish humor.
"It takes time to turn your new house into your home," she said later that morning, sitting cross-legged in her small dressing room over Rockefeller Center's Studio 1A, her hair pinned up in large curlers. Now "there's that comfort level where I can really be myself, and no one is going to fire me. Like, 'Oh my God, that's her?' "
In fact, while Couric has fielded sniping about the changes she's made to the "CBS Evening News" this fall and Rosie O'Donnell has stirred a new controversy nearly every week since arriving at "The View," Vieira's transition to "Today" has been almost placid by comparison.
So now, the top-rated show is looking to its next challenge: plotting out innovations that will keep the program competitively sharp down the road, while fending off the complacency that allowed ABC's "Good Morning America" to nearly overtake it in the ratings last year.
"I do think we've got to mix things up, and now that everybody's there, I think we're ready to do it," said Phil Griffin, senior vice president at NBC News in charge of "Today," as he headed to a meeting with the show's producers to map out new projects for the next year.
A possibility on the table: expanding the program to a fourth hour, a move that could generate substantial new revenue for the news division.
"We don't want to paint by numbers," said Jim Bell, the show's executive producer. "We are both aware of the competition and the show's very rich tradition, but we don't want to be so bound by it that we find ourselves just going through the motions every day and saying, 'Well, we'll just do this because that worked yesterday or the month before.' We have to keep changing."
Vieira's arrival was the biggest change on the 54-year-old program since Matt Lauer replaced Bryant Gumbel almost a decade ago.
HER first few months at "Today" may not have received the same amount of scrutiny as Couric's at CBS, but the stakes are just as high for NBC. As the top moneymaker for NBC News, the three-hour-long morning show is its most valuable commodity. A dip in viewership could mean the loss of millions of dollars.
"Fear of failure is a big motivator for me," Vieira said. "There was so much hype around this, just this sense that I was going to let down an entire broadcast, not just one person, but everybody who put a tremendous amount of faith in me -- I felt the weight of it."
But her co-workers said she fit into the show surprisingly easily. "She's got a certain sense of anarchy that the rest of us have," said Al Roker, the show's weatherman. "What's great about her is it's not all about her. And that's not to say anything about anyone else. It's just that she's not like, 'Hey, look at me!' She's just part of the team."
So far, "Today's" audience has remained fairly steady, averaging about 5.78 million viewers through mid-December, 2% less than last season, according to Nielsen Media Research. The show has widened its lead over "Good Morning America," which lost longtime co-anchor Charles Gibson to the evening news last May. So far this season, ABC has averaged 4.95 million viewers, a drop of 6%. CBS' "The Early Show" lags far behind with 2.76 million, also down 6% from last season.
But "Today's" competitors believe the program has some vulnerabilities. Jim Murphy, senior executive producer of "GMA," noted that the ratings have fluctuated during the last several months, with NBC's lead swinging by as much as half a million people week to week. "It's all over the map, which I think would indicate that people are still moving around and shopping a little bit," he said. "I don't think their own audience fully accepts what has happened."
Steve Friedman, CBS' vice president of morning broadcasts, acknowledged that "Today" has a strong lead, but pointed out that its numbers have dipped in the last month, especially among 25- to 54-year-old women. "Let's put it his way: Certainly Meredith is not hurting the 'Today' show," said Friedman, a former executive producer of the NBC program. "But on the other hand, she isn't helping it either."
NBC executives dismissed that notion. "We were the one that lost our main anchor and we survived it," Griffin said. "All the trends are in our favor and we're getting stronger."
After 11 years in first place, "Today" has reason to be confident. But the staff won't soon forget spring 2005, when the show's margin over "GMA" dwindled so dramatically that it looked as if it could lose its crown.
"That scare of 18 months ago will last a long time," Lauer said. "When you look in the rearview mirror at a period where it wasn't fun around here and people were nervous about that winning streak, that's kind of a great motivator."
Added Ann Curry, the program's news anchor: "There was a sort of trepidation about how it would all come together, or if it would. Now it's much more settled and much more on mission."
These days, "Today" doesn't take any chances. In October, when Diane Sawyer scored the first interview with Mel Gibson after he made a barrage of anti-Semitic remarks during a drunk driving arrest, NBC shifted its national advertising so its morning program wouldn't be rated by Nielsen at the time ABC was airing its exclusive. The result: "Today" won the day by a huge lead. "We try to be as aggressive as we can," Bell said.
Now NBC executives are having serious discussions about expanding "Today" to that fourth hour, perhaps next season. Conceived as a "younger, hipper" lifestyle and consumer hour, it might feature "Today" regulars Curry and Natalie Morales, as well as up-and-coming NBC Universal personalities such as Telemundo's Maria Celeste Arraras and Access Hollywood's Billy Bush and Maria Menounos. (The later hour would not include Lauer, who appears minimally on the show's third hour, or Vieira, whose job as host of the syndicated "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" gig prohibits her from being on NBC's air after 9 a.m.)
The extra hour would cost little to produce, but could generate significant revenue for the news division, as well as save NBC affiliates the cost of purchasing syndicated programming for the 10 a.m. time slot. In preparation, a secondary set upstairs from the main "Today" studio is being wired so it could be used for a fourth hour in case Lauer and Vieira need to anchor breaking news downstairs at the same time.
Expanding the show is one of several initiatives that executives are considering for next year, including projects that will take the show out of the studio as was done this summer, when "Today" broadcast from outside Rockefeller Center while its set was being renovated.
"What makes this show work is there's a relationship with the audience," Griffin said. "I hope you see a bunch of big projects, big events, like taking the show outside."
A NEW RHYTHM
FOR their part, Lauer and Vieira are working on finessing their on-air interaction.
"The chemistry was there, strangely, from the beginning," Lauer said. "I think what's changed and what's evolving is the comfort level, just in terms of understanding, a little bit like quarterback and receiver -- where that person is going to be when the ball is in the air. I'm getting a better sense of where she's going to take a conversation."
After anchoring the show for nine years with Couric, with whom he enjoyed the repartee of a long-married couple, Lauer said he and Vieira are developing their own kind of banter.
"It's fun to get her juices going," he said. "I'll pretend they're talking in my ear and say, 'There's something breaking and Meredith, you're going to have to do eight minutes with the Palestinian leader.' We just really try to unnerve each other a little bit."
"We tease each other a lot," Vieira added. "My biggest problem with that is he's a really good practical joker. And I think I've got him on something, and he always tops me."
While Vieira said she misses the "free form" of "The View," the onetime "60 Minutes" correspondent said returning to hard news has been "a joy" after nine years on a daytime talk show. She's had a harder time mustering enthusiasm for the show's fashion makeover segments.
"I wear the same thing every day," Vieira said, going over to her closet and tossing a pair of jeans, a black T-shirt and a pair of clogs on the floor to illustrate. "I'm a tomboy. I'm just not into that stuff. I'm trying to -- not fake it, but you know, understand it more."
Vieira got a note of encouragement from her predecessor when she took the job, and said Couric is "doing a great job" in her new role at CBS.
"I feel for her now," she added. "There's a lot mean-spirited stuff out there. It takes a long time to build audience. So when I read some of this stuff, I get angry, because it's just not fair. I don't think you can judge me in my role or Rosie who took over for me or Katie in a matter of a few weeks. It's really going to be over the long haul."