Looking to Tomorrow

Now that she’s giving up her Today show gig, Katie Couric is ready to start focusing on a totally different morning audience—her daughters Ellie, 14, and Carrie, 10. “She so relishes the thought of sleeping in, making her kids scrambled eggs for breakfast and walking Carrie to school,” says Couric’s longtime pal Lisa Gregorisch-Dempsey, senior executive producer at Extra. “Plus she can stay up late and watch movies with them.”

Meredith Vieira’s household, on the other hand, will suddenly have to deal with not having Mom around in the a.m. once The View cohost plunks down in Katie’s vacated chair starting this September—but perhaps that’s for the better. “My son Gabe reminded me that there’s just a lot of fighting at home in the morning,” says Vieira, who’s a mom of three (Ben, 17, Gabe, 14, and Lily, 13). As for evenings, when Vieira will likely be in bed by around 9 o’clock, “they’ll be glad to have me out of their face. [As it is] I have to bang on their doors at night and beg to have an audience with them.”

Change can be a scary thing, which Couric and Vieira acknowledged when announcing their upcoming departures. But both are looking forward to the challenge. “Although it may be terrifying to get out of your comfort zone, it’s also very exciting to start a new chapter in your life,” said Couric, 49, of her decision to become anchor of CBS Evening News. Meanwhile, her successor heard similar wisdom from her older son Ben. “He said, ‘It’s okay to be scared, but you should never just be inert,'” says Vieira, 52, who already dismisses comparisons to Couric. “I can’t even go there,” she says. “They said, ‘All we want from 7 to 9 a.m. is for you to be you.’ I said, ‘I guess I can do that, I guess I can pull that off.'”

Vieira has been on the move ever since she was handed her degree from Boston’s Tufts University in 1975. Starting as a news reader for a Worcester, Mass., radio station, she moved in front of the camera by 1982 for CBS stations in New York and Chicago. She went on to win four Emmys in her four seasons on the newsmagazine West 57th. In 1989 she became a coeditor on 60 Minutes, but two years later, with baby Ben at home and Gabe on the way, she was scolded for her new part-time schedule by executive producer Don Hewitt. “I need someone who can pull his or her own weight,” he said publicly at the time. Vieira chose her children over the show. “It was a real no-brainer,” she told PEOPLE in 1999.

Moving to The View in 1997 allowed her the chance to spend quality time with both her children and her husband of 20 years, Richard Cohen, 58, whom she met in 1982 when he was a producer for Dan Rather. Cohen was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1973, and his illness has led to a loss of eyesight and decreased mobility in recent years. He also twice underwent surgery for colon cancer, in 1999 and 2000, during which Vieira’s View bosses and cohosts were more than understanding when she needed to tend to matters at home.

Vieira anticipates the same sort of support when she moves to Today. She’s already got a fan in Matt Lauer. In fact, before getting the job, she had to undergo somewhat of a chemistry exam with Lauer as mandated by NBC CEO Jeff Zucker, who first pulled up outside the View studio to talk to Vieira back in October (in a limo with tinted windows, no less). “He said, ‘Just have dinner or coffee, because if you guys don’t get along, it’s a moot point anyway.'” Vieira and Lauer both talk about their getting-to-know-you session—which took place in December at Lauer’s New York City apartment—like it was a blind date. “I ended up wearing jeans and a jacket because I just decided, I gotta be me,” says Vieira.

“I wanted to make a good first impression so I made sure I had someone else come in to cook,” says Lauer, who, to Vieira’s relief, was also wearing jeans (“When he opened the door, I thought, ‘Yes! This is going to be good!'”). Was there an instant rapport? You bet. They found out they both have the same birthday (December 30), each holds a great fondness for Providence, R. I. (Vieira was raised there, and Lauer worked there for three years), and, more important, they could already sense a bond beginning to build. “By the end of the night we had this kind of banter going back and forth where we were really starting to kid each other,” says Lauer. “I remember as she left thinking, ‘Wow, that was easy.'”

Not so easy will be saying goodbye to his current partner. While Couric will have more time to spend with her family at home, she’ll be leaving another behind when she leaves Today next month. “Other than my mother, Katie is the longest relationship I’ve ever had with a woman,” says Lauer. “I’ve been married for eight years, but I’ve known Katie for 12 or 13.” Lauer talks about visiting Couric in the hospital when her second daughter was born, and sitting with her in her apartment after the loss of her husband, Jay Monahan, who died of colon cancer in 1998. Of course, viewers have also been there through Couric’s highs and lows. “She is not a person who is afraid to show her frailty on air,” says Lauer. “I think it is her sense of humanity that is going to make her so good at her new job.” That, combined with her journalistic chops—she began her career as a desk assistant for the ABC News Bureau in Washington, D.C., and has also worked for CNN and NBC News. As Hewitt says, “People don’t look for the remote when Katie is onscreen.”

Pursued by CBS for a year, Couric, who will be the managing editor and anchor of The Evening News and a contributor at 60 Minutes (where she’ll start working on stories at the end of July), took her time making her decision, frequently running her list of pros and cons by a group of friends she refers to as “the kitchen cabinet.” “It was like the beginning of a relationship where both potential partners are sizing each other up,” says a source close to her. NBC was equally eager to keep her, but at a certain point, “it was clear she was going to move on,” says a top network executive. “There was one job she wanted, and at NBC the [nightly news anchor] job was already taken.”

With 15 years behind her at Today, Couric is now ready to go back to her first love. “She really is a hard-news journalist,” says friend Wendy Walker, senior executive producer of Larry King Live. “She’s covered Columbine and 9/11 and all the elections. She really wanted to get back to that on a day-to-day basis.”

Another perk of the new job? “It will be much better for her love life,” says Walker. The single mom will now have a much later curfew. “She’s excited about eventually meeting Mr. Right,” says Gregorisch-Dempsey. “But nobody meets the kids unless they’re special.” Although she’s been spotted with beer distributor Jimmy Reyes, it’s “nothing serious,” says a source.

With execs at CBS and NBC confident that they’ve each got their Ms. Right, now the women themselves need to get ready for the plunge. For Couric, her decision didn’t seem real until she saw it scrolling on a news-ticker on top of a taxi. “She stared at it for a minute, then a smile crept across her face,” says her agent of 10 years, Alan Berger. “She said, ‘If it’s on top of a New York City cab, I guess that makes it official!'”

As for Vieira, whose contract with The View is up in July, the reality of her decision comes every morning with the sound of her alarm clock. “I’ve already started getting up at 4 because I want to be totally in the rhythm of it by September,” she says. “I don’t want to be freaking out on that level too.”

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