Post-Meredith Vieira: Natalie Morales Looks to Carve Out Her Own Niche at ‘Today’

2:03 PM PST 06/08/2011 by Marisa Guthrie
Janette Pellegrini/FilmMagic

“I hope every once in a while I get to be out in the field,” the newly appointed newsreader tells THR.

Now that the goodbyes for Meredith Vieira are behind them, the new Today team – which isn’t exactly new – are settling into their roles. And Natalie Morales, who has been upped from correspondent to news anchor, filling the job that Ann Curry will vacate to become co-host, hopes that like Curry, she can carve out a niche away from the anchor desk as well.

“I hope every once in a while I get to be out in the field,” said Morales. “I think that’s a real strength of mine. So I want to get out there in more.”

Morales, who will remain co-host of the 9 a.m. hour of Today, won praise from her bosses at NBC News for her field reporting during last year’s Chilean mine disaster. On that particular story, she had a distinct advantage over her English-only speaking competitors. The daughter of a Puerto Rican father and Brazilian mother, Morales speaks Spanish and Portuguese.

“That made all the difference in the world,” said Morales of the lack of language barrier during the miner story. “I think that allowed me to shine in that story in the moment.”

Morales’ father was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, so she grew up all over the world including Panama, Brazil and Spain until her senior year in high school when her parents moved her and an older sister to Dover, Delaware.

Her international upbringing, she said, “has allowed me to adjust to any situation.” It also has made her predisposed to being on the road.

“That’s something I miss a lot - when I’m not out in the field,” she said. “When you’re in studio too much, you feel like you’re getting a little stale.”

Today executive producer Jim Bell described Morales as a “great journalist with a strong news background.”

“First and foremost her responsibility to the show is going to be at the news desk,” said Bell. “But as we’ve seen with Ann Curry in the last five years, that doesn’t mean we have any intention of locking her to that desk.”

Indeed, Curry racked up quite the frequent flyer miles during her tenure as newsreader. She traveled to Darfur several times, as well as Congo, Serbia, Pakistan, Japan, China, Iraq, Afghanistan and even attempted to climb Kilimanjaro.

It was one way she dealt with being passed over five years ago for the co-host job on Today.

“I think that was really important,” said Bell. “She was already an established, beloved member of the team. And she’s acknowledged that that was a disappointment. But instead of sulking or pouting, she redoubled her efforts to focus on hard news and get out there and cover a lot of stories that frankly you don’t see a lot of people covering.”

Top-rated Today goes into its latest transition with more than 800 consecutive weeks as the No. 1 morning show. Bell said he likes the chemistry between Curry and Matt Lauer.

“They’ve worked together for 15 years,” he said. “They’re like sibling. They know each other’s rhythms. They know how each other think. They know what stories they’re passionate about.”

And while there will be no new faces in the Today studio tomorrow morning – NBC News White House correspondent Savannah Guthrie will co-host at 9 a.m. with Morales and Al Roker – it is a particularly tumultuous time for television news in general. CBS News has weathered anchor changes in the morning and evening. And Disney-ABC announced earlier this week that Katie Couric will join ABC News as part of a talk show deal with the company.

“I think the most important thing is that we focus on ourselves,” said Bell. “And while we’re certainly aware of what’s happening with our competitors, I think we have a really smart, cohesive group of people who like working together – behind-the-scenes as well as on the air. And if we do that we’re going to be fine.”

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