Couric, in the hottest of hot seats, sees 'Today' trials as a morality play

April 17, 1991|By Ray Richmond | Ray Richmond,Orange County Register

This would appear to be the scariest of times for Katherine Couric, who officially took over as co-anchor on NBC's "Today" show barely two weeks ago.

But for someone supposedly frying on the hottest of hot seats, Couric seems remarkably composed. And secure. Even


"I just liken this whole thing to a modern-day morality play, with boring old me coming in at the end to save the kingdom," quipped Couric with a chuckle in a telephone interview from New York.

By "this whole thing," Couric is referring to the soap opera that has been "Today" ever since Jane Pauley left the show after 13 years in January 1990.

Pauley was America's sweetheart, an institution, and replacement Deborah Norville became the wicked witch who flew in on her broomstick and elbowed poor Jane out of our morning lives forever.

Norville also was held responsible for the jarring drop in "Today's" ratings that happened to coincide with her promotion.

Norville's fateful decision to breast-feed her newborn son in front of a People magazine photographer was the last straw. You'd have thought the woman had just posed for Hustler, so outraged was the network's reaction.

So now Couric -- seven months pregnant herself -- is the new Woman Who Would Be Jane.

Couric, no novice at age 34, has seen first-hand what a nasty press can do to a television career. She feels for Norville and believes she got a raw deal.

"Poor Deborah had to come in after Jane Pauley, who was a household name and a part of everyone's family. The whole backlash against her was unfair.

"Deb is very talented and just happens to be burdened with beautiful looks, which hurts you in this business. It makes people want to take shots. But she did her homework and was a fine interviewer. She was unfairly criticized.

"The transition for me is a lot less difficult," Couric said, "because I obviously have an easier act to follow -- and that's no run at Deborah."

Indeed, Couric has been allowed to slowly ease her way into the "Today" fold. She started on the show as its national correspondent last June and had served as substitute co-anchor since Norville went on what was presumed to be a brief maternity leave at the end of February.

"I've been around here for a while, so everyone already knows me," Couric said. "I haven't needed to introduce myself around or anything. It's not as if I were this weather girl who just got off the plane from Dubuque."

It also hasn't hurt that Couric has had a solid, legitimate hard news background in TV. She started out in 1979 at ABC as a network news assistant in the Washington bureau, moving on in 1980 to join CNN, first as an assignment editor and later an associate producer. Couric also logged five years (1984-89) as a general assignment reporter in Miami and Washington, mostly covering crime, drug and immigration issues.

Couric joined NBC News in July 1989 as deputy Pentagon correspondent and was NBC's lead correspondent reporting from the Pentagon during the invasion of Panama. She was in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf war, interviewing troops and officials stationed there.

"I've paid my dues as a serious journalist, and it's important to me that I be perceived that way," Couric insisted. "It's imperative that I continue to do hard interviews and have a lot of input into the show's editorial content."

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