'Today' show's Norville replaced by Couric-- and a warmer image

April 05, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

The girl next door is back, and ambitious Eve is gone.

Those characterizations -- popular perceptions of Katie Couric and Deborah Norville, respectively -- are part of what's behind NBC's announcement yesterday that the former is replacing the latter as co-anchor of "Today."

NBC News President Michael Gartner said the change was made to accommodate Norville, who had asked for a year off to spend with her newborn son, Karl Nikolai.

"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 in life and practice good journalism," the 33-year-old Norville said in a statement released yesterday. "There is plenty of time for the latter, but I'll only get one chance for the former."

As recently as a month ago, however, Norville and NBC denied rumors that she would be replaced, issuing assurances that she would be back from maternity leave at the "Today" show anchor desk on April 29.

Couric, who is expecting her first child in July, yesterday called her promotion "a terrific opportunity . . . one I certainly didn't expect would come my way." She did not discuss her plans for maternity leave yesterday.

Gartner called Norville a "terrific anchor and reporter," but did not say what her duties would be if and when she returns next year.

That's not surprising, since there were factors other than Norville's desire to be a full-time parent that surely played a role in NBC's decision.

One of them involves ratings. "Today" was the perennial No. 1 morning show until December 1989, when Norville replaced Jane Pauley as co-host. It soon fell to second place behind ABC's "Good Morning America" and continued to lose ground. Six months later when Gartner was asked to estimate how much money had been lost because of the lower ratings -- ad rates are determined by them -- he put the figure at more than $10 million.

Furthermore, that loss was shared by NBC affiliates -- like WMAR-TV (Channel 2) in Baltimore -- because half the advertising time is sold locally. At last year's affiliate meeting in Washington, the stations let NBC know how angry they were about the switch.

NBC tried to placate the local stations last spring by hiring Faith Daniels as a news reader, Couric as national correspondent and Joe Garagiola as part-time co-host, but it wasn't enough. "Today," which has lost 20 percent of its audience since Pauley left, is still No. 2 behind "GMA."

But the show is a closer second than it was when Norville went on leave in late February. Each week that Couric, 34, has been filling in at the anchor desk, the ratings have inched up. The increased revenue because of those higher ratings and yesterday's move to Couric are two things the affiliates are sure to cheer when NBC meets with them in June.

The ratings and money both are a result of perception. The news consultants say that Couric, like Pauley, is perceived by viewers as the "girl-next-door" -- warm and friendly.

Norville, on the other hand, was regularly described as glamorous and icy. She has been compared in newspaper reviews and in a "Saturday Night Live" skit to the scheming title character in the 1950 film, "All About Eve."

Even though Pauley said she wanted to leave "Today," the perception stuck that Norville had pushed her out.

The change at the anchor desk from Pauley to Norville became one of the most heavily reported media personnel moves ever, perhaps because it took on a larger meaning for many in the baby boom generation. The way some boomers saw it, a representative of their generation, Pauley, was being told that she was too old. Some resented the idea that they were now being pushed aside by the generation coming up instead of being the ones doing the pushing. Norville became the target of that resentment.

And the more Norville pressed to be liked by viewers, the worse things seemed to get. During Pauley's last broadcast, Norville talked about "crying buckets of tears," and some wondered why she was crying.

In many interviews, Norville stressed how she made all her own clothes; last month, she appeared in People magazine breast feeding her child. It may have all been sincere, but it didn't play that way for some.

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