”This is a family,” Deborah Norville told a recent meeting of NBC affiliates. ”I know the Today show wants to make the show a family,” said Joe Garagiola regarding his mandate as a returning Today regular. ”We’ve got ourselves one great little family here,” burbled Willard Scott, the Today show’s unique combination of weatherman and id, on a recent Monday. Scott was welcoming the morning show’s new national correspondent, Katherine Couric. The ceremony included one of Scott’s lethal bear hugs, which Couric endured with the tight, stoic smile of a little sister whose fun-loving big brother has squeezed her just a bit too hard.
Clearly, the idea of family obsesses everyone involved with the Today show these days. In addition to siblings Willard and Katherine, Bryant Gumbel and Norville are the serene dad and mom, Garagiola is your favorite Uncle Joe, and former CBS news reader Faith Daniels a stern but smoldering auntie. Today has been losing the morning race to Good Morning America for months, and NBC inflicted a deep psychic wound on the country by replacing beloved-in- retrospect Jane Pauley with ice-queen-in-practice Norville. With joltin’ Joe on board, however, the place buzzes with chatter; he joshes Bryant, Bryant joshes back. Garagiola, a Today host from 1969 to ’73, enlivens Gumbel.
On these terms, the staff changes are a success; Today is more intriguing. Norville has done something interesting: She has revived the Georgia accent she suppressed as a news reader; some astute media adviser must have said it makes her seem warmer. So far the high point of the new Today occurred when Bryant, Deborah, Joe, and Faith all sat around eating plates of butter beans and saying, ”Ummmm, good!” (A guest, chef Paul Prudhomme, had left a big pot behind.) Eatin’ beans and grinnin’ — isn’t that what good morning television is all about?