For the first time in weeks, the mood at the Today offices is light, cheerful, as if an ominous cloud had finally been lifted from NBC’s morning hours. During a photo session, Jane Pauley and Deborah Norville gently rib each other for the benefit of the camera and assorted onlookers, while other staffers form a comic chorus. “Do we have to say nice things about Jane?” they ask, teasing her about her clothes, her shoes and the numerous—and not always successful—hairdo transformations throughout her career. “Come on, be nice,” Pauley pleads, but the kidding continues. She and Norville, who is careful not to draw too much attention, display a sisterly rapport but refuse gratuitous shows of affection. When they are asked to hug, Pauley hastily replies. “Noooo. That’s silly. We work together, we don’t hug each other all day.”

Only days before, however, the two women had embraced on the air as Pauley announced her imminent departure from the show. In a move that came as no surprise, Pauley ceded her co-host chair—along with her alarm clock—to Norville and confirmed that she would be leaving Today by the new year (except for occasional fill-in duty) to co-anchor a new prime-time news program scheduled to debut next summer. After Pauley’s 13 years as NBC’s soothing wake-up call, her transition marked the end of an era. Yet in some ways, it came none too soon.

From the moment Norville, 31, replaced John Palmer, 53, at the Today news desk in early September, the professional menage a trois formed by Bryant Gumbel and the two women had inspired reams of copy for critics and comics who gleefully painted the newcomer as an ambitious home wrecker. Jay Leno joked about Norville’s “coup,” and predatory portraits of her popped up all over David Letterman’s set, including one in his own chair. Saturday Night Live cast Kathleen Turner as a ruthless Norville in a send-up of All About Eve, and Joan Rivers began taking up a collection for poor Jane. Press headlines warned Pauley, who turned 39 last week, to WATCH OUT and called the cast a FEUDING FAMILY. “We would joke in the morning, ‘Is it safe to read the paper?’ ” says Pauley. “Mostly it wasn’t.” Even the ever-cool Norville admits, “I cried buckets about this stuff. Buckets.”

Meanwhile, sources at Today maintained that the truth was much more complex than the rumors might seem, and no one was more eager to set the record straight than Jane Pauley. Firmly denying she was pushed out, Pauley says, “I initiated all of this.” Earlier this year, she realized, “I was looking at 15 years on the show, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be celebratory or embarrassed. I wasn’t thinking about leaving, but I knew I needed life beyond Today. My pilot light was out. Jane Pauley didn’t want to be thought of as a one-trick pony.” She broached the subject with Dick Ebersol, the new senior vice president in charge of the show. He remembers, “In late July, early August I sat down with Jane, and we outlined the changes I saw coming, the first being bringing Deborah in to be the news anchor. She totally signed off on the change.”

Even with Pauley’s approval—and Gumbel’s—many who witnessed the change openly wondered why management was tampering with a winning formula. Part of the answer was simple: Although Today had been the No. 1 morning show for nearly four years, its lead over ABC’s Good Morning America had recently slipped to only four-tenths of a ratings point. Moreover GMA was now beating Today among women between 18 and 49, the most sought-after demographic group for advertisers. Norville was the bait to lure back the thirtysomething viewers.

Perhaps the most pertinent explanation for Norville’s ascent, however, lies in the industry’s inherently short attention span and constant—often pointless—dismissal of the old and faithful for the shiny and new. Veteran newswoman Marlene Sanders, who was once unceremoniously bumped from a high-level ABC job, says the assignment of Ebersol to the show portended the shuffle. “Any time they change the manager, you can expect upheaval,” she says. “That’s one of the rules. And if someone like Jane is not safe, then no one is ever safe.”

Still, the addition of Norville might not have resulted in such an uproar had NBC execs not badly fumbled the play. What they did not communicate clearly to Pauley was that Norville would be invited to share the hosts’ couch, as well as their desk—a cozy welcome never accorded John Palmer. “Inadvertently a climate was created that Deborah and I were in competition,” says Pauley. “Honestly, I did feel awkward about it.” She knew viewers would believe she was being eased aside. “People seem to think that Jane had no clue of what was going on until she started reading about it in the papers,” Pauley says. “Jane knew. Before it happened. Jane knew.” What she didn’t anticipate, however, was the incessant media reports of a knockdown battle brewing between herself and Norville.

Pauley’s bosses also made a miscalculation, underestimating her reaction to Norville’s highly visible role, despite the fact that she had been miffed twice before, when Gene Shalit and then Chris Wallace shared anchoring duties, creating a cumbersome threesome. “I felt diminished,” remembers Pauley, but those times “I had no weight to throw around.” This time, however, NBC listened. “Money was not an issue, and I wasn’t out to bigfoot Deborah’s career. But Jane had to find out that Jane had a future at NBC.”

From early September to early October, Pauley and the NBC brass “did almost nothing but talk,” says Ebersol. NBC begged her to stay. Pauley says she wanted to, but the reaction of the press seemed to suggest that her remaining days at Today were few. Then in October, what Ebersol calls two great coincidences took place. “Jane had this idea for a prime-time special called Changes. The very same day, NBC top management, totally devoid of us, came through with a 52-week commitment for a newsmagazine” In those two projects, plus an extended contract and an undisclosed raise from her $1.2 million salary, Pauley saw her ego salved and her future assured, and so she decided to leave Today.

And what part did Deborah Norville play in all this? Beyond showing up for work, none. Though portrayed as a heartless spoiler, Pauley’s heir apparent insists (and no one has contradicted her), “I never set my sights on the job. I didn’t ask for it, I didn’t campaign for it, I didn’t knock anyone around to get it. I’ve worked to deserve it.”

So who is this arriviste, this mystery woman of the morning? The portrait that emerges from her colleagues and friends unfailingly depicts Norville as a hardworking Goody Two-shoes. A native of Dalton, Ga., the Carpet Capital of the World, Deborah was the second of four daughters born to Merle and Zach Norville—who, in fact, was in the carpet business. A solid student, Deborah was a majorette at Dalton High and once took the school’s Betty Crocker Award for home ec. At age 17, she represented Georgia at the Junior Miss competition, performing magic tricks using garments she had sewn. She listed her favorite personalities as Anita Bryant and Princess Grace.

Norville didn’t win, but the many TV cameras at the pageant turned her on to journalism. Breezing through the University of Georgia’s broadcasting program, she graduated summa cum laude at 20. After a stint at WAGA in Atlanta, she moved north in 1981 to WMAQ, the same Chicago station that had launched Jane Pauley’s career. As a reporter, she produced in-depth pieces on missing kids, child pornography and battered wives. A former Chicago anchorman recalls once calling her Debbie during a newscast. “While the tape was rolling, she turned to me and said, firmly, ‘Don’t ever call me Debbie on the air.’ She was dead serious.”

Despite her no-nonsense demeanor, Norville ingratiated herself with colleagues, often baking cookies and cheese grits for the staff and helping young assistants learn the ropes. One former coworker, Donna Crilley, recalls, “When I did a demo tape in the studio, she made them stop the tape so that she could touch up my makeup.”

There is one tiny blemish on Norville’s otherwise spotless record: her relationship with Harmon Wages, a former Atlanta Falcons footballer, whom she began dating in 1979 and continued to see after moving to Chicago. In 1984 Wages was caught with cocaine and later convicted of possession. Testifying at the trial, Norville said, “I told him if he wanted to date me exclusively, I wouldn’t tolerate him using drugs.” The trial ended their relationship, though Wages still remains fond of Norville. “She’s as close to perfect as they make ’em,” he says. (Since 1988, Norville has been married to Karl Wellner, 35, the CEO of Habsburg, Feldman, a fine arts auction house.)

In New York City, Norville subbed as a Today host for more than two years before becoming a permanent member of the team this fall. Upon her promotion, one published rumor said Norville was chummy with Robert Wright, president of NBC. “I’ve never even had lunch with him,” Norville protests. “The whole thing is all about sexism. The implication is that no woman gains a promotion from merit. If I was a 31-year-old man with 11½ years of reporting experience, you wouldn’t have seen this furor.”

What remains to be seen is how the audience will respond to the switch. In a USA Today on TV call-in poll, 15,704 viewers said they preferred Pauley, versus 1,616 for Norville. Although Pauley too was sized up as an insubstantial golden girl when she first arrived at Today, at age 25, she matured into a respected interviewer. She was also a comforting morning presence, exuding enough perkiness to jump-start groggy viewers into the day, without chirping so much that they would want to strangle her.

The fan letters stacked in her NBC office bear witness to how much Pauley is liked. “Look at that mail,” she says. “My guess is that people look at me and project their own values—importance of family, ego is healthy but not the biggest thing. I don’t know. I can’t explain my popularity.”

In leaving the show, Pauley is in good company: In addition to Tom Brokaw, Today veterans include John Chancellor, Joe Garagiola and Barbara Walters. But as far as Pauley’s newsmagazine may fare, skeptics point out that NBC News’s prime-time record is abysmal. One Today staffer asks, “When has NBC ever had a successful prime-time news series? I think they’ve had 15 that died. Unfortunately, Jane’s will probably be buried too.”

Nevertheless Pauley has, ironically, gained confidence from the recent ruckus. “There was a time,” she says, “when I thought being interviewed by Jane Pauley meant being assigned to the B-team. Now I know that I can make the show work, and that if it doesn’t work, I will live to see another broadcast day.”

Now at least she will get to sleep late and spend mornings with her three children, Tom, 3, and twins Ross and Rachel, who turn 6 next month. Her husband, Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, “is already worried that I’m going to upset the home routine,” Pauley jokes. “He’s scared to death that I’m going to be hovering all the time. He married me because I went to bed at 8:30, so he could get work done. Already I’m asking, ‘Should the kids be dressed before they eat breakfast?’ ”

Better yet, what are they watching on TV?

—Jeannie Park, Alan Carter, Gavin Moses, Sue Carswell in New York, Michael Mason in Atlanta, Marilyn Balamaci in Chicago