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A Tale of Three Women

The folks at Today had good reason to be giddy last week when they broke out the Champagne after wrapping their first broadcast with new co-host Meredith Vieira.

With the new season under way and the morning wars begun in earnest, the NBC show is poised to become an even greater powerhouse than it was six years ago, when Jeff Zucker was executive producer and ex–co-host Katie Couric still liked her job.

It’s easy enough to see why. Vieira’s arrival hasn’t merely drawn gushing reviews and soaring ratings; her presence has clearly reinvigorated the place. Nowhere is that more apparent than in her effortless rapport with co-host Matt Lauer, who seems professionally refreshed and at the top of his game. What you have in this new duo is a pair of unique talents who come across as completely at home in their own skins.

Before she mentally checked out toward the end of her tenure at Today, Couric exuded that kind of comfort and ease. Since becoming anchor of CBS Evening News, you can see her struggling to hit her stride and settle into her new role. But at least she wants to be there.

The same can’t be said for Diane Sawyer, who is, by many accounts, the source of a distinct air of discontent emanating from the Times Square set of ABC’s Good Morning America.

After recent changes at the broadcast put some pep in its step, there have been signs of big trouble ahead. A New York Times article last week played up the optimism that greeted the arrival of new Senior Executive Producer Jim Murphy and his No. 2, Tom Cibrowski. With news reader Chris Cuomo and weatherman Sam Champion in place, the show’s on-air family is finally complete. All of which brought into stark relief that Diane Sawyer, GMA’s mother-figure and one true superstar, has her gaze fixed on the exit door.

Sawyer’s deal comes due in 2007. When the Times asked her if she’d be with GMA a year from now, she answered that “there is plenty of time to think about what remains after—when, and whether.” This admitted “dodge” on the matter comes amid ABC corridor chatter that Sawyer is still miffed that her former GMA co-host Charlie Gibson got the ABC World News anchor gig instead of her. And there has been talk for weeks that she has been contemplating a post-GMA life that would put her at the helm of the resurgent Nightline or in line to be the next Larry King over at CNN.

Whatever Sawyer decides, she put forth the wrong face when she gave the unmistakable impression that she is a short-timer at GMA. When you’re getting paid an estimated $12 million to lead a news program engaged in an ever more intense ratings struggle, the correct response to the Times’ question is that you have the greatest job in the universe with the best possible team and that you’re in it to win. You don’t negotiate in the press, and you certainly don’t play Hamlet on the eve of battle with a reinvigorated Today.

To paraphrase the late, great philosopher George Burns, if you can fake enthusiasm, you’ve got it made. If that’s true, then GMA is in serious trouble. Its star host isn’t even trying, and the fresh, new face at Today doesn’t have to pretend.

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