For 13 years, Jane Pauley rose each weekday before the sun. As a faithful cohost of Today, helping to ease Americans into their own days, she delivered news and a smile on the NBC morning program. Her stint there had begun in 1976, when, at the age of 25, she took over for long-time cohost Barbara Walters; Pauley quickly seemed irreplaceable.
That is, until Deborah Norville came along in September 1989. Almost overnight, Norville went from being the largely unknown anchor of NBC’s early-morning Sunrise to Pauley’s heir all too apparent.
Feeling the show needed a younger edge to bolster its slipping ratings, the network brought Norville onto Today as news anchor, reportedly with a five-year, $5 million contract—a yearly salary almost as much as Pauley’s rumored $1.2 million. And in an unprecedented move, NBC execs had her sit not behind a news desk but alongside cohosts Pauley and Bryant Gumbel. The seating arrangement was laden with implications. To the world, it appeared that the veteran Pauley was being ousted by a younger, sexier, blonder woman. Rumors flew, and the morning show started to resemble a soap opera: Did Jane, 38, hate Deborah, 31? Who was Bryant’s favorite?
Pauley didn’t wait for answers. With two years left on her Today contract, she informed NBC that she would be leaving. ”At the time, I had no idea what I wanted to do, but choosing to go was surely better than being told to go,” she said to LIFE magazine. Belatedly recognizing that she was a beloved celebrity, NBC renegotiated Pauley’s contract, giving her her own newsmagazine show and a series of prime-time specials.
It all turned tearful on Dec. 29, 1989, Pauley’s last morning. With grace and style, Pauley thanked NBC for ”giving me this incredible front-row seat for the last 13 years, and my colleagues for being more like family.”
The ”family” Pauley left behind didn’t fare as well as she did. ABC’s Good Morning America bested Today in the Nielsens the very week Norville took Pauley’s seat. NBC let Norville go after just 19 months, replacing her with Katie Couric, who eventually helped the show regain the kind of ratings it had in Pauley’s era. Today Norville hosts the highly rated syndicated tabloid program Inside Edition.
Pauley, however, has soared. Since 1992, she has anchored the respected prime-time Dateline NBC. And she doesn’t have to get up early any more.