The other day, when Rosie O’Donnell made her debut as Meredith Vieira’s replacement on “The View,” she made a remark involving the word “fur” that had no connection to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Whether this shrill, fluffy morning kaffee klatch is your idea of entertainment or not, it’s safe to say that O’Donnell’s presence has eliminated the last traces of journalistic mojo on that gabfest, unless you have some old tapes handy of Barbara Walters when she wasn’t an insatiable celebrity sniffer.
By contrast, Vieira should slip into her perch as Katie Couric’s replacement on NBC's “Today” as smoothly as Brian Williams did when he assumed Tom Brokaw’s position.
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Vieira is an accomplished journalist, which always made her presence on “The View” somewhat of a mystery. Aside from Walters, once a respected newswoman who in recent years has slowly morphed into the “Baba Wawa” caricature created by the late Gilda Radner, the rest of “The View” panel had all the intellectual weight of a group of female friends on their lunch hour trying on shoes. How Elisabeth Hasselbeck has a steady gig on that show rather than occupy a place more suited to her talents — selling jewelry on the Home Shopping Network, for instance — is fodder for a “Dateline” investigation.
Vieira is not ditzy. But thanks to her stint on “The View,” she has paid her ditzy dues. That will serve her well in some of the more frivolous tasks on the “Today” show, which Couric had mastered. In fact, expertly striking the difficult balance between the solemn and the wacky is what made Couric such a morning show institution.
The “Today” assignment requires, first and foremost, someone who knows how to interview. This was one of Couric’s strengths. Although she rarely got credit for it, she could leave grill marks on an unwilling interviewee with the best of them. The goal is not ambush journalism or must-squirm TV, but rather to make someone answer a straight question with a straight answer, and to persist if it’s obvious that person is committed to avoidance.
Big sister's in charge, now
This is one area where Vieira should shine. She has been a reporter at the local affiliate level and at various TV news magazines. She knows what a good story is and she knows how to hone in on the who, what, where, when and why. The “Today” show usually only requires that kind of journalistic heft in its early portion, but a softball interview with a government official or a kid-gloves approach toward a foreign head of state can set the tone for a lousy day. Vieira should be at least Katie’s equal when it comes to nailing down the facts, as long as she remembers to remove her “View” bonnet and put on her “Today” hard hat.
What isn’t so clear is whether she can match Katie’s expertise during the “Today” show’s lighter moments. Yes, she has plenty of recent experience, having just survived the torture chamber of insipid clucking that is “The View.”
But Couric was ideal because she was, above all else, perky. She had a cheerleader’s enthusiasm for the portions of the show that dealt with celebrities, with cooking, with live musical acts, with fashion and with the sundry other topics that filled out the latter half of the show.
Vieira is a different personality. She can laugh and joke, but she projects more of an authoritative big sister presence rather than Couric’s little sister mischievousness. She’ll be fine. She’s a pro. Whether she can be sufficiently buoyant morning after morning remains to be seen.
There is also the little matter of camaraderie. It seemed Vieira had it on “The View,” although heaven knows why she wanted it. It may take some doing with “Today.” It’s one thing to cut a few giddy promos touting the new member of the family. It’s quite another to string one show after another indefinitely.
It may turn out to be a seamless transition. Or there may be a daily catfight backstage between Vieira and Ann Curry while Matt Lauer and Al Roker hoot them on. Or ice may form between Vieira and co-host Matt when they start to divvy up assignments. (For instance, she and Matt share the same birthday. So who cuts the cake?) The truth is that you just never know.
It does not appear that Vieira has had a history of creating tension wherever she’s been. In fact, it seems quite the opposite. On “The View,” she was considered the moderator, serving as the voice of reason. That’s not a quality usually found in an instigator or an antagonist.
One of the many lures for Couric in jumping to CBS (besides a salary estimated at between $12 million and $15 million per year) had to do with lifestyle. A devoted mother of two who lost her husband Jay Monahan to cancer in 1998, she probably had enough of waking up at 3 or 4 a.m. to take the town car to the “Today” show set.
Vieira is married, has three kids and is just as committed to them as Couric is to her loved ones. In fact, she caused a ruckus in the early ‘90s when, as a correspondent on “60 Minutes,” she wanted to be able to work on the show part-time because she just had a child. But after giving it a try for two seasons and in the wake of another pregnancy, producer Don Hewitt eventually replaced her with someone who could give a full-time commitment.
It’s unlikely Vieira will become pregnant again. But she’ll be 53 in December — three years older than Couric — and it will be interesting to see if, at this stage of her career and her life, she can handle the hours and the grind.
Then again, after working on “The View” for almost 10 years, the “Today” show might seem like a vacation.
Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to MSNBC.com. He lives in Los Angeles.