'Tragedy' of Norville not all her fault

Television

April 05, 1991|By Michael Hill

Deborah Norville's departure from NBC's "Today" show was like the last act in a minor tragedy that played itself out on the airwaves. She was an Icarus of the early morning, flying too high, too fast, destined to be brought down the earth.

Frankly, taking a year off to be with her baby -- announced as the reason for her giving up the job -- might be a breeze after what she's been through with "Today." The most colicky, up-at-night, fussy kid would be nothing compared to the tabloid-press-type treatment she's received, not to mention putting up with Bryant Gumbel.

There are two essential elements to this tragedy. First was the "other woman" label, the one put on her as the tart of a young blonde who bumped good, sweet, approaching-40 Jane Pauley out of her hostess' chair.

It was a bum rap. Norville didn't decide she should replace Pauley. NBC management did. The head has already rolled for that decision -- Dick Ebersol has packed up his tent and headed back to the sports department where he has had considerably better luck.

Sure Norville was ambitious. You don't get to be anchor of a network news show -- NBC's early, early morning "Sunrise" -- while still in your 20s if you're not. Sure, she wanted Pauley's job. What "Sunrise" anchor wouldn't want to co-host "Today"?

But that doesn't mean she had the long knives out to get her. Even if she did, it wouldn't have worked. Norville didn't have that kind of power. The tragic flaw was in the vision of the executives who were wowed by her youthful beauty, thinking that it outshone Pauley's well-patinaed grace.

Still, as long as Norville sat on that set, she was never going to be able to shake the "other woman" tag. Like Doug DeCinces trying to follow Brooks Robinson at third base for the Orioles, she was always going to be the one who made the beloved hero leave.

But the other element of this tragedy is that Norville just was not that good in the co-host role. Like the other disappointing million-dollar bonus baby of that era in the early morning wars -- that would be CBS' Kathleen Sullivan -- Norville is fine in scripted situations where she projects an aura of competent confidence. On her feet in interview and repartee situations on "Today," she came across as stiff and brittle when what you want is warmth and friendliness.

The fact is, Norville was improving, gaining a confidence that allowed her to relax a bit. But, because of the legacy that was no fault of her own, she was never going to take "Today" back to its position of prominence.

She might not have had the long knives out for Jane, but they were clearly out for her. Otherwise, how do you explain a discreet breast-feeding picture in "People" causing such a furor. Obviously, it set the phone lines between NBC news and newspaper gossip columnist abuzz.

So now Katherine Couric comes aboard. There has been much to-do about how the ratings have increased since she took over from Norville. Of course, there was a war on and all news programs' ratings increased. Moreover, "Today" always does well when people turn on the set in the morning for news.

The important thing about Couric is that she's one step removed from Pauley. People will give her the chance they would never have given Norville. But then she's got a maternity leave coming up. Who's going to take her place then? Will the ratings continue to rise? Will there be more changes? Has anyone tried Meredith Viera?

Never a dull moment behind the scenes at "Today."

*

Author Warren Adler had a simple insight when he wrote "The Sunset Gang" -- that everything that happens in any other part of the world also takes place in a retirement community. That fact is brought to life with careful craftsmanship in a three-part American Playhouse that begins tonight at 9 o'clock on Maryland Public Television, Channels 22 and 67.

Each hour-long dramatized short story is a separate piece, connected only by focusing on characters you have met briefly in the others. Tonight's is called "Yiddish," and it tells of an illicit love affair that happens to take place between two people who are pushing 70.

Both have been married for decades and raised kids. But they see their marriages and deathly traps that never fulfilled their dreams. They meet at their Florida retirement community's Yiddish club where speaking that language reminds them of their childhood and its dreams. They fall in love and decide to follow their hearts. Harold Gould and Tressa Hughes are exquisite as the principals, while Doris Roberts is excellent as the wronged woman.

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