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The ''Today Show'''s future

Matt Lauer may inherit Bryant Gumbel’s chair

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Tune in to the Today show these days, and you’ll hear a lot of chitchat about Katie Couric’s baby, Willard Scott’s semiretirement, and other aspects of the cast’s lives. But the only person they won’t talk about is the one person everyone wants to talk about: Bryant Gumbel. In January, the 47-year-old Gumbel announced that 1996, his 15th year as coanchor of the top-rated morning program, would be his last, thus creating a vacancy for one of the most coveted news spots in network television.

By all accounts, the leading candidate to fill Gumbel’s loafers is Matt Lauer, 38, a Today contributor since 1993 who’s often subbed for Gumbel. ”He’s the heir apparent,” says Jacoba Atlas, a former senior producer at Today. ”He’s smart and easy to take. That counts early in the morning.” More important, Lauer is already entrenched. ”Possession is nine tenths of the law,” says Steve Friedman, a former executive producer of Today and current president and CEO of Savoy Pictures Programming. ”He has the inside track.”

The question then is, if all signs point to Lauer, why hasn’t NBC publicly anointed him? Officially, the network has no comment. Some observers point out, not too persuasively, that NBC News president Andy Lack has more urgent concerns — specifically, the start-up of NBC and Microsoft’s new 24-hour news channel and the launch of a Sunday edition of Dateline to compete against 60 Minutes. ”Do you think Today is the first thing on [Lack’s] mind?” asks Friedman.

A more compelling theory: NBC does not want to risk alienating Gumbel, who is still considered a valuable talent at the network. (Gumbel hasn’t disclosed his plans.) As one insider puts it: ”Let him have his lap around the track.” Similarly, sources say Lauer doesn’t want to plug himself out of respect for his close friend Gumbel. However, Lauer did turn down a job as anchor for the new entertainment newsmagazine Access Hollywood (coproduced by NBC) to keep himself open for the Today position.

Most intriguing is the possibility that NBC hasn’t settled on Lauer. ”Matt may be hampered by being so much like Katie,” says Eric Braun, a research consultant to the networks. ”They have the same kind of energy and demeanor. You need to balance someone [like Couric] with someone like Bryant, who’s cynical and acerbic.” Perhaps, though none of the others who would be Bryant — including Dateline‘s Stone Phillips and NBC News White House correspondent Brian Williams — fit the Gumbel mold either. Still, Phillips is too hot a commodity not to be considered a contender, and Williams may be on the Tom Brokaw track, leading from Today to the network news anchor spot.

Then there’s the outside chance that Gumbel may not abandon his morning domain after all. ”I’m not 100 percent convinced he’s leaving,” says Friedman. ”TV is strange. It’s a long time till January.” Joel Tator, executive producer of the independent KTLA Morning News, agrees: ”There’s a school of thought that says [Gumbel] will re-sign for a lot of money. That wouldn’t surprise me.”

Of course, NBC may simply be biding its time in order to turn the transition into a public relations opportunity. After all, there are those who say it doesn’t matter who replaces Gumbel. ”Today is in its 44th year,” says Tator. ”It’s now at the point where it’s anchor-proof.” Hmmm. Anyone remember Deborah Norville?

With reporting by Jennifer Pendleton