Meredith Vieira on the 'Today' Show Turmoil, Her New Daytime Gamble

UPDATED: The woman who helped established an earlier era of No. 1 at NBC News dishes on Don Hewitt, “The View,” and trouble at her former morning home: “Shit happens, people make mistakes.”

This story first appeared in the Aug. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

"One of the things you need to know about Meredith is that Meredith kisses," Matt Lauer tells me in a serious tone. "On the lips."

It's a personality quirk that recalls that Seinfeld episode, "The Kiss Hello," though the debate there was about kissing on the cheek. Vieira's greeting is much more aggressive. And yet, with her, it comes off as completely natural.

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"If it were to happen with 99.9 percent of your friends, you'd say, 'Well, that's a little weird,' " adds Lauer. "But when it happens with Meredith, you kiss her back!"

This is the key to Meredith Vieira's appeal: a level of openness unusual for anyone, much less a celebrity. "There's no way anybody could fake what she exudes," adds Lauer, who shared the Today show couch with her for nearly five years. "[Her] heart is almost visible as she walks towards you."

Vieira's openness has enabled her to form deep connections not only with the people in her life but with the millions of strangers who watch her on TV. Which is something she says she missed after she left Today in 2011, and to some extent after exiting Who Wants to Be a Millionaire last year (a job she refused to give up when she joined Today in 2006, in part because she loved giving heaps of money to ecstatic contestants). And it's why she has decided to return to regular television -- in the capricious milieu of daytime, no less -- on her own talk show this fall produced by NBC.

"People desperately want to connect with other people," says Vieira, 60. "And when you're on daytime, it's a different thing. They see you as their friend or their mom or their grandmother. I missed that."

Vieira has nothing to prove. She has succeeded at a series of high-profile jobs. She was one of the original hosts of The View, serving for nine years before leaving for Today. Her work ethic and earthy personality have made her one of the most well-liked people in TV. And her willingness to put her family before her career -- even when still climbing the ladder in a cutthroat industry -- has made her an icon for women.

"Meredith has endless energy for people," says Rich Sirop, the executive producer of her talk show who has known Vieira since they worked together on Millionaire in 2002. But the qualities that have made her so popular -- her authenticity and emotionalism -- occasionally could feel jarring in the confines of morning TV, where the higher premium is on the ability to fill hours with news, taped pieces and segments that segue seamlessly thanks to the meaningless banter among anchors. Now Vieira has the chance to build a show around her personality -- quirks and all.

"It's hard, it's competitive," she concedes of the daytime landscape. "I don't know who's even watching at 2 o'clock [when her show will air across much of the country]. They could be lying to me, but they've made it very clear that I don't have to do anything I don't want to do. They backed off on a lot of things."

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The "they" of course being NBCUniversal (where CEO Steve Burke and broadcasting chairman Ted Harbert ostensibly are her bosses). Vieira has the leverage to get NBC executives to support her vision in part because she represents an era of success at NBC News when Today was on top and the blogosphere had not turned on Lauer. Her new show will channel her dedication to causes (including children's charities, animal rights and multiple sclerosis, the disease her husband, Richard Cohen, has battled since his 20s) with humor, giveaways (an Oprah Winfrey show staple) and inspirational interviews.

"For Meredith, it was never about the fear of not succeeding," explains Sirop. "It was, can we be different?"

Vieira insisted on shooting at NBC's 30 Rockefeller Center headquarters, where opportunities for synergy abound: She'll be in a refurbished sixth-floor studio across the hall from Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show. Seth Meyers' Late Night and Saturday Night Live also shoot there, as do Nightly News with Brian Williams and MSNBC's primetime lineup. NBC initially suggested basing the show at the company's facility in Stamford, Conn., where it would have been cheaper; Jerry Springer, Maury Povich and Steve Wilkos all shoot there.

Sources put the budget for The Meredith Vieira Show, which will bow Sept. 8, at close to $35 million not including Vieira's talent fee, which industry insiders put at $5 million. It's more expensive than the average daytime talker -- which costs about $20 million -- though considerably less than the $50 million ABC invested in the first season of Katie Couric's show. But Couric also had a 4 p.m. time slot with more opportunity to reap higher ad rates.

Vieira's show will have some unusual accoutrements: a band and a sidekick. Everett Bradley, a percussionist and backup singer with Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, will lead an all-female ensemble. And Vieira chose her good friend Jon Harris, chief communications officer at Hillshire Brands in Chicago who moonlights as a musician, to be her Ed McMahon.

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Her insistence on having the set mirror the living room of her Westchester County, N.Y., home -- with replicas of her pet-ravaged furniture -- was met with raised eyebrows, she says, as was her desire to have animals on the set. Vieira is an animal lover and vegan; Today show viewers may recall Mr. Nuts, a squirrel she nursed back to health after it was dragged home by one of her cats. And she once rescued a mouse from a sticky trap at the ABC studios where The View taped.

"I found it ironic that Disney would have sticky traps for mice," she explains with a hint of a smile. "To me, that was sadistic beyond anything, that you would promote your entire company with a mouse and then treat these animals with such cruelty. So I came upon one and I took him outside, trying to calm him, and I peeled his little feet off the thing. I think I may have peeled a little of his foot off too. But he made it. He scampered off."

There are no plans to have rodents on the daytime show, but a regular segment will match a service dog with a needy recipient. "They were like, 'Eh, I don't know,' " she recalls. "Always having an animal on set, wanting to have the old ratty furniture there, wanting Jon, somebody who was at Hillshire hawking sausages. It had to be a real friend or it wouldn't be right. … They didn't want a band because who does a band in daytime? And also you have to pay them. I kept saying it really fits who I am. And they came around; I give them a lot of credit."

Vieira has been in the TV business long enough to know not only exactly what she wants but also how to get it. She famously quit 60 Minutes when Don Hewitt would not let her work part-time after the birth of her second child, Gabe, in 1991. She declined offers to host CBS' Early Show and ABC's Good Morning America when her three children -- now 25, 22 and 21 -- were young. And she resisted earlier offers from NBC and others to host a daytime show after she left Today.

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"She's not impressed by fame, money, prestige or the ability to set the agenda. What's important to her is to have a happy family life," notes Today executive producer Don Nash. "She's the poster child for someone who figured it out." The health struggles of her husband, a news producer and author of a book about his battle with MS, seem to deepen her relationship with fans.

Vieira received an outpouring of support when she revealed via Twitter that she and Cohen had spent a weekend in March in the hospital after a blood clot in his leg partially traveled to his lung, which can be fatal. "He's fine. But he's a little bit diminished. His walking is less stable," she says. "Richard's very independent. Stubbornly so. I think that's one of the reasons he's done as well as he has. He lived in denial for a really long time, until he couldn't anymore. He needed a cane. His eyesight is so compromised, he's legally blind. And that's hard for a writer. But we're a team. That's the way I see it. We take care of each other."

Vieira voluntarily has left every job she's ever had, including then-top-rated Today, to spend more time with her family. "She's always known when it was the right time to move on," observes Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide, who recruited Vieira to Today and later would launch Couric's daytime effort at ABC. "That's one of the great skills in life, not just television."

She also never adjusted to Today's brutal early morning hours. But it nonetheless was a bold move to give up a role on an iconic program in 2011 against the entreaties of NBC News executives who, as has been borne out, did not have a very good succession plan in place.

"That was such a bad time," says Vieira, referring to the botched handover from Ann Curry, who replaced Vieira, to Savannah Guthrie in 2012. "I really felt for Matt a lot. And I felt for Ann, too. It turned so nasty, really nasty. Every day you're reading this stuff that is just beyond cruel from angry, angry people who felt that Ann had been slighted and embarrassed and humiliated. And they basically pointed to one person on whom to take out all of their anger. I don't know if I would have survived that."

She says she did not offer Lauer advice through the turmoil. "I just told him I loved him and I was there for him. But I never sugarcoated what had happened. I thought it had not been handled smartly from the very beginning, because I don't think they ever felt that was the right fit for Ann so they should never have put her in that position to begin with. And then the ending was so mishandled. But you know what, shit happens. People make mistakes. We all do."

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One insider speculates that NBC would have paid Vieira more than $20 million a year to stay at Today. (When she left, her contract was worth about $12 million a year.) Less than a year later, the show, which had topped the ratings for more than 16 years, fell to second place against Good Morning America.

"I think they thought, 'She's not going to leave, it's too much money' -- which is a real incentive," says Vieira. "Then I realized if I'm sticking around for that, there's something wrong. If you don't feel like doing the job, especially a job that's that hard on your life, why keep doing it? I like being well-paid. But that's never my incentive for jobs."

NBC executives now see Vieira as the key to restoring profits and prestige to daytime. Since Winfrey left her wildly profitable syndicated show in 2011, there has been much jockeying for supremacy. Currently, Dr. Phil is the most popular daytime talker, averaging 4.1 million viewers each week (and a 1.7 rating among daytime's target demographic of women 25-to-54), followed by Live! With Kelly and Michael and Ellen DeGeneres' feel-good hour. But the growth in daytime is among urban audiences; it's in part why Wendy Williams and Steve Harvey are succeeding (both shows are up among viewers and women 25-to-54 year-over-year and Williams' show has the youngest audience at 49; Couric's audience is among the oldest at 61). NBC also produces Harvey's show, and that success has emboldened the broadcaster to put more resources into daytime talk.

"Are we buoyed by the fact that we got something right, which is rare in television? Sure," says NBC's Harbert. "But I don't look at Meredith as much of a gamble."

Yes, Vieira is a superstar personality with a portable fan base. But daytime is a notoriously challenging arena where shows fronted by everyone from reality stars (Bethenny Frankel, Kris Jenner) to megawatt anchors (Couric) have failed to achieve staying power. Asked whether Couric has offered her any advice, Vieira laughs: "No, I don't know what advice she'd want to give me, except maybe, 'Run!' "

Meanwhile The View faces an uncertain future as it heads into its 18th season, with creator Barbara Walters departing in May, Jenny McCarthy and Sherri Shepherd fired in June and Rosie O'Donnell, who replaced Vieira in 2006, returning in September to join remaining co-host Whoopi Goldberg.

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"I like our hand," adds Harbert. "The key to daytime TV is to get [guests] to spill their life. …Meredith Vieira is a human magnet. People love to talk to her."

But Vieira also has a subversive streak. It's partly what made her such a successful traffic cop on The View, where her biting humor often pinpricked the helium-filled rants of her co-hosts. To this day, every time she is at NBC -- she has remained a news correspondent there -- she sneaks into Lauer's dressing room and scribbles profanities on his mirror. "If I see her in the makeup room or in the studio," says Lauer, "I know that when I walk into my dressing room she will have taken her lipstick and written something completely vile on my mirror. Meredith has an edge."

Vieira's tireless work ethic was instilled early on. Her mother and father were first-generation Portuguese-Americans whose own parents emigrated from the Azores and settled in the working-class fishing port of New Bedford, Mass. Vieira and her brothers were raised in Providence, R.I., where her father was a general practitioner whose patients mostly were recent Portuguese immigrants.

"My dad did not leave his office until every patient had been seen," she recalls. "So he would come home at 11 o'clock at night. I wouldn't see him a lot. I put him up on a pedestal way before I realized that my mom should be there. My mom was always pushing me. I had three older brothers, and she said, 'You can do what they can do and more.' Maybe she was living a little bit vicariously through me and wanted more for me."

If Vieira's mother pushed her to achieve, it probably was her father who set her moral compass. "He was just a very kind man. A lot of his practice involved talking to people. It wasn't just examining them. He got a lot out of really getting into the heads of people. He talked to us about that, how you really need to listen to people. Everybody knew Dr. Vieira in Providence."

Including notorious Providence crime boss Ray Patriarca. Because Vieira's father also was among the city's medical examiners, he occasionally was called to testify at criminal trials. "[Patriarca] would call the house," recalls Vieira. "My father would go to the phone and I would hear him say, 'Ray, no. I can't do that. That would not be right.' He wanted my father to lie on the stand. But they had a cordial relationship. Nobody ever threatened my father. But it was like, my god, the mob is calling!"

Vieira desperately wanted to go to Harvard, but she did not get in and enrolled at nearby Tufts. On Saturdays, she would hitchhike to Harvard Square. "I would sit in the coffee shops and pretend I went to Harvard. It was very sad. I got over it eventually. But I just always had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. And I was also a lost soul."

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She majored in theater but happened into journalism when she took a broadcasting class as a senior. Her clear, distinctive voice was well-suited for radio, and she landed an internship at WEEI in Boston. After graduation, she found a job at a Top 40 station in Worcester, Mass. That's where she was when she answered a call from the news director at Providence radio and TV station WJAR. "He wasn't looking for me. He was calling for someone else," she says. "But he liked my voice." He offered her a weekend radio job, which quickly led to a TV gig. "I think that he thought I looked OK and he also needed women. And they listed me as a minority because I was Portuguese."

Her move to WCBS in New York in 1979 had a similar twist: The news director's secretary later confided to her that management categorized her as Hispanic, "which was bullshit," says Vieira. "But I was very lucky. I graduated from college in 1975. And that's when quotas were a really big deal. So if you were African-American or female, they needed you, you were a number. So that's how I got a series of jobs."

This of course underplays Vieira's skills. But it likely was a combination of her talent and her gender that piqued the interest of 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt, who offered her a full-time job in 1989, barely six months after the birth of her first child, Ben. "That was the only job in the business that I ever really, truly wanted," she says.

When Hewitt took her to lunch to talk about the job, she brought her infant son along. "I held Ben's hand the whole time just to remind myself that I'm a mom now because Don can be very persuasive when he's talking about the things you'll do and the places you'll go. … I needed [Ben] with me to ground me because my head could have easily gone into the clouds."

She took the job. "I thought, 'I can balance this; I'll be able to do this.' " But she quickly discovered that the emotional pull of her child was too strong. "I would cry when I was home because I really didn't want to go to work. I would cry when I was away because I wanted to be home," she says. "It was tough. And yet I loved telling stories."

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Then, at the end of 1990, she became pregnant with her second child, and because of multiple previous miscarriages, her doctor advised her not to travel during the first trimester. "I hadn't told Don that I was pregnant. And he called me for some story in France; he wanted me to get on the Concorde. And I was panicking because I knew this was not going to go down well. So I said, 'I'm pregnant.' And there was this long silence. And then he said, 'Well I've got to get off and find someone else then.' And from there on it was all downhill."

Her second son, Gabe, was born in 1991; Vieira told Hewitt she would again need to work part-time for six months. "And he said, 'Well, you do it [full-time] or you can't stay.' And I said, 'OK, I'm out of here.' "

Her dismissal spurred national headlines about the struggles of working mothers as well as some doubt in Vieira, too. "I started to question my identity," she admits. "A woman came up to me at a party right after … she cornered me and she was really nasty: 'How dare you do this? We've seen you as a woman who can do it all. You've represented that to people. And what you're doing is setting back all women.' " In the moment, Vieira was too shocked to defend herself, but today she does so clearly: "To me life is about priorities. You set the ones that work for you and you shouldn't be judged."

If Vieira has made a habit of kissing her friends on the mouth, she offers a slightly less intimate greeting for total strangers: the hug. Not the loose, airy embrace reserved for superficial acquaintances but the all-in, two-armed clinch.

On a recent July afternoon, Vieira is doling out greetings -- not kisses but full-armed hugs -- to strangers who approach her as we make our way through The Beverly Hilton, where she is promoting her show at the Television Critics Association Press Tour: an elderly gentleman from Texas; Myrna, whose kids attended Northwestern University and who knew that Gabe and Vieira's daughter, Lily, also went there.

"They don't know everything about me," observes Vieira. "But they know a lot." These are the people in her "demo" -- but the young, African-American woman wearing shorts and a Hello Kitty sweatshirt is something of an outlier. She stops Vieira as we're leaving our lunch at Circa 55. "I, like, have a little secret thing for you," she says quietly as she pats her heart with her hand.

"You do?!" exclaims Vieira. She enfolds the young woman in one of those hugs, also planting a kiss on her cheek. A publicist takes the young woman's phone and snaps a picture. "OMG. Me and Meredith Vieira!" she beams. "I'm going to be watching you."

Laughs Vieira: "My husband is always saying to me, 'Just talk to them, don't f—ing hug them all the time.' But thank god! I pray that people continue to do that."