It all began in the back of Jeff Zucker’s SUV.
Suspecting that Katie Couric would soon depart “Today,” Zucker called Meredith Vieira in October to ask if he could give her a lift between sets of “The View” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”
Zucker and Vieira had never met in person, but in that five-minute drive, he popped the question: “Would you ever think of coming to morning TV?”
It was a sensitive situation because Couric had not decided to leave NBC, but Zucker said, “I knew there was a strong possibility it could happen.”
Vieira had once turned down a CBS offer to join “The Early Show,” and she was known to put her three children and husband, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, first.
Yet somehow, that first meeting six months ago led to NBC’s introducing Vieira as the newest co-anchor for “Today,” banking the franchise on the chemistry between Matt Lauer and the 52-year-old Vieira.
In a press conference at NBC headquarters, Lauer sought to assure potential doubters that the chemistry was there, chastising Vieira for interrupting him once and saying, in a joking reference to Couric, “This is how I’ve felt for the last 10 years.”
Vieira announced her departure from “The View” Thursday during a sentimental segment on the show. Her contract ends in August, but she expects the producers will let her out at the end of May sweeps, so they can take the summer to bring new talent to the show.
As for “Millionaire,” Vieira and her agent, Michael Glantz, will be negotiating their way out of her contract with Buena Vista Television, which runs another two years, or at least have it altered to accommodate the “Today” schedule.
Buena Vista shoots 200 episodes of “Millionaire” each year over the course of four grueling months. “It’s heavy lifting,” she said. “Could it be done with the ‘Today’ show? Sure, anything’s possible.”
By the time Zucker first reached out to Vieira, CBS topper Leslie Moonves had been courting Couric through intermediaries for six months.
At the TCA Press Tour last summer, Zucker was asked what he would do if CBS stole Couric. He quipped that he would go after Moonves’ wife, “The Early Show” co-host Julie Chen.
But by last fall, NBC had a list of potential replacements for Couric in the event that she left when her contract expires in May.
Two months after the first meeting with Zucker, Vieira had dinner with Lauer at his home in Connecticut. “It was like going on a blind date where you really like the guy,” she said. “When you’re doing daytime TV, you have to get along — you can’t fake it.”
Vieira is three years older than Couric and is considered a safe choice for a network looking to hold on to its aud, which is 65% female.
At $10 million a year, NBC News saves $5 million annually over what Couric has been paid under her current deal.
In going outside the net, Zucker bypasses a host of talent “Today” has been taking special pains to develop, including news anchor Ann Curry, Natalie Morales and Campbell Brown.
Zucker said he expects all three to remain on the show. “Nobody has been passed over. When you have the opportunity to add a hall of famer, you add a hall of famer,” he said.
NBC News president Steve Capus said Vieira, a former co-editor of CBS’ “60 Minutes,” could appear on other NBC news platforms, including “Dateline,” “Nightly News” or news specials.
Vieira had a high-powered news career at CBS, where she became the youngest-ever correspondent for “60 Minutes,” but she left the net and the hard news grind more than a decade ago to raise a family.
Vieira has been moderator of “The View” since its inception in 1997 and host of “Millionaire” since 2002.