Ann Curry to replace Meredith Vieira in June

With Meredith Vieira officially moving on from NBC’s “Today,” the net is handling the transition with an eye toward keeping as many familiar faces as possible in front of viewers. Co-host Matt Lauer scoffed at suggestions that he would be exiting the show later this year at the net’s Monday ayem press conference, and division prexy Steve Capus emphasized NBC News’ open-door policy toward Vieira herself.

Ann Curry is set to replace Vieira as co-anchor, and Natalie Morales has been named news anchor, replacing Curry. Savannah Guthrie will take over as co-host in the program’s third hour, and there the game of musical chairs stops (for now) — the net has not yet named a new White House correspondent to take over for Guthrie.

Reshuffling the deck at “Today” is serious business: The top-rated morning show reportedly generates profits of about $200 million a year for the Peacock. Vieira replaced Katie Couric at the program in 2006 and went on to greater success, with NBC expanding the show to four hours in 2007 (Curry, Kathie Lee Gifford, and Hoda Kotb were the original fourth-hour anchors). Vieira has a standing invitation to reappear on the show, and Capus said the division hoped to develop further programming with her but stopped short of specifics.

Vieira, visibly moved by encomia from her “Today” colleagues at the press conference, said she had been contemplating her exit since January, “as Jeff Zucker was leaving.” She also said that she would be glad to spend more time with her family, including two children due to celebrate graduations this summer, and her husband.

The departing anchor also had some strong words for the attending journos. “There’s been a lot of speculation in the press about ‘Oh, poor Meredith, with her invalid husband,'” Vieira said (her spouse Richard Cohen suffers from multiple sclerosis). “I just want to set the record straight on that: Richard is in good health, and that’s part of the reasons I want to leave right now.” Vieira said that she wasn’t happy with coverage of her husband’s illness. “It diminished him, those articles, and it diminished me.”

Matt Lauer is still on the schedule, despite rumors that he, too, may follow Vieira off the show; the new lineup will debut in June. Lauer fielded a question about how long he planned to stay at the show.

“My oldest son Jack graduates in 2020,” he joked. “I have a long-term contract with NBC — I’m going to be here for a while. You’re going to get tired of asking that question.”

Matriculation aside, Rumors persist around Lauer: His contract ends in 2012, and NBC is likely exploring options for his replacement, should the daily grind of TV news’s third shift begin to wear on him.

Lauer also said that he would not be working with former “Today” colleague Katie Couric on her rumored syndie show. “Katie’s timetable is a little more accelerated than mine,” Lauer said.

Capus praised Curry’s reporting skills and dedication to the job. “I got a call on Saturday at home and it was from Ann. I thought, ‘This is must be about the announcement on Monday morning,’ and no, she was in Pakistan calling about the new footage of bin Laden,” he said. “And I thought, ‘OK, this is a different era.'”

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