NEW YORK — A day after Katie Couric announced she was leaving for CBS, NBC announced it had chosen Meredith Vieira as Matt Lauer’s new partner on the “Today” show.
“Meredith's vast experience as an award-winning journalist, as well as talk show host, make her the ideal candidate for this job,” said Jeff Zucker, CEO of the NBC Universal Television Group.
(MSNBC.com is a joint venture of NBC News and Microsoft.)
Vieira, a co-host of “The View” and a former “60 Minutes” correspondent, brings decades of journalism experience to her new job, as well as a personal touch honed by years on morning television. That mix should serve her well as she steps into a job that blends hard news with Hollywood interviews and cooking segments.
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The network confirmed the selection at a Thursday afternoon news conference, but she announced the news herself in an on-air statement on “The View,” saying that her time on the mid-morning talk program had played a crucial role in her getting the job.
“I could not possibly be in this position today if it had not been for all of you,” she told the show's audience and crew.
Vieira said she expected to leave her “View” post in May, and will join Lauer on “Today” in early September. It will be the first anchor change on morning television’s top-rated program since 1997.
Video: Vieira is new 'Today' show co-anchor “Meredith is a real pro, and I think it speaks volumes that NBC has brought her here to ‘Today,’” said Lauer, whose on-air chemistry with Couric made the show an unbeatable force in morning TV. “She has the perfect background and personality to make a real mark on this show and in morning news in general. I'm thrilled to welcome her aboard.”
Couric announced Wednesday, her 15th anniversary on “Today,” that she was leaving next month to join CBS News. She’ll become anchor and managing editor of the “CBS Evening News” in September.
She turned down an offer of about $20 million a year to stay at NBC in order to take CBS’ five-year deal at near her current salary of about $15 million, according to people close to negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity because networks do not speak publicly about salaries. She’s also agreed to do “60 Minutes” stories and prime-time specials for CBS.
Vieira herself was among those congratulating Couric on the move. “I think she will do a phenomenal job,” she told viewers as “The View” began Thursday morning. Co-host Barbara Walters, who moved from NBC to ABC in 1976 to become the first female evening news co-anchor, said she'd called Couric “to tell her I thought she did the right thing.”
NBC chose Vieira over several internal candidates, including weekend “Today” anchor Campbell Brown, newswoman Natalie Morales and “Today” newsreader Ann Curry. Brown and Morales had subbed for Couric on “Today” while she was on vacation at the end of last month.
“The fact is that nobody's been passed over, or anything like that,” Zucker said during a news conference Thursday. “When you've got the opportunity to add a hall of famer to your team, you take that opportunity.”
Vieira has won eight Emmy awards, both for her journalism and a Daytime Emmy for her job as host of the game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” She drew attention for such in-depth reporting as a 1995 ABC News special on white supremacists and her newsmagazine reporting at CBS, where she appeared both on “60 Minutes” and “West 57th.”
She had been reluctant in the past to move back to news, despite other offers, for family reasons. But “Today” gives her the chance to join a broadcast that has led in the ratings more than 10 years in a row, and she said during Thursday's news conference that her family, including her eldest son Ben, had pushed her strongly to take the job.
“He said, ‘Jeez, Mom, this is a no-brainer,’” Vieira said.
The gears to accomplish such a big-name deal began turning last October, when Zucker asked Vieira to let him drive her from ABC's facilities, where “The View” is broadcast, to the nearby studio where she taped “Millionaire.”
During that brief meeting, her first introduction to the NBC chief, he asked whether she might be interested in the position — given the growing rumblings that Couric might be leaving.
“We wanted to consider all of our possibilities,” Zucker said.
In December, she met Lauer when the two had dinner at his apartment. Both immediately found the sort of rapport that makes for a successful on-air pairing.
“It's like [when] you go out on a blind date and you really like the guy,” Vieira said.
Will people watch?
As for Couric, if she is to make her dawn-to-dusk move a success, she’ll need more people like Amy Lindgren.
“I really love her,” said Lindgren, a 27-year-old mother of two from Denmark, Maine. “I watch ABC now, but I’d rather watch Katie than the person doing the evening news (at ABC) now. She’s outgoing, she’s energetic and she seems to relate to the people nicely.”
Lindgren is among the 29 percent of people responding to an Associated Press-TV Guide poll this week who said they preferred Couric in the evening. Forty-nine percent of the people said they favored Couric in the morning.
The AP-TV Guide poll of 615 adults was conducted by Ipsos on Monday and Tuesday. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Though both women's moves seem to telegraph the shrinking gap between hard news and more entertainment-driven TV, Vieira insisted she plans to tone herself back from her frank “View” talk — “where every other word out of my mouth is orgasm” — as she adapts to become the face millions of Americans will see over their morning coffee.
“I'm going to spend the next three months trying to calm down a little,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.