NBC prepping for Meredith Vieira's "Today" exit

Tue Apr 5, 2011 10:42pm EDT
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By Lacey Rose and Marisa Guthrie

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - With media attention focused on turmoil at other network newscasts, NBC's top-rated morning show is quietly weighing its own shake-up as co-host Meredith Vieira considers a future without "Today."

Vieira, who seamlessly took the reins opposite Matt Lauer nearly five years ago, is said to be considering leaving the program when her reported $11 million annual contract expires in September. According to sources, Vieira, 57, has tired of the grueling lifestyle and would like to spend more time with her ill husband.

"There is going to be an opening; she's done," says one source with knowledge of the situation. Another suggests she is still making her decision but that re-upping looks unlikely.

Although NBC News executives proved adept at the host transition when 15-year veteran Katie Couric stepped down in 2006, Vieira's departure would nonetheless create a void at the dominant morning franchise -- and an opportunity for rivals to pounce. In addition to being among the longest-running programs, Today has been the top-rated morning show for nearly 800 consecutive weeks (or more than 15 years).

That longevity, coupled with its airtime -- four hours Monday-Friday and three hours on the weekend -- has made the show a profit center for NBC News. "Today" generated $454 million in ad revenue last year for its weekday broadcasts alone, according to estimates provided by Kantar Media. (By comparison, ABC's "Good Morning America," a perennial No. 2, took in $314 million, and CBS' "Early Show," a distant third in the ratings, earned $178 million.)

Vieira, who still hosts the syndicated game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," could decide to extend her contract for another 12 months as she did last year. But sources say the "Today" team has already started weighing replacement options. Potential heirs apparent to Vieira are said to include "Today's" Ann Curry and Natalie Morales, Washington correspondent Savannah Guthrie and CNBC's Erin Burnett. (Lauer, who has co-hosted Today since 1997, is locked in longer than Vieira, but his potential departure has NBC News eyeing its male anchor crop, including MSNBC's Willie Geist and CNBC's Carl Quintanilla.)

An NBC News spokesperson declined comment on possible anchor changes, except to say, "The Today show anchors are currently under contract and firmly in place." Reps for Vieira declined comment.

Curry and Morales have the advantage of being familiar to NBC's morning viewers. Curry, in particular, has paid her dues at "Today," where she has been the show's news anchor since 1997. Whether she'll walk if the job doesn't become hers is a concern that will inevitably be factored into the decision-making process.   Continued...

<p>Hosts of NBC's "Today" show Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira (L) interview British singer Susan Boyle (C) on the show in New York, November 23, 2009. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid</p>