As the popular ''Today'' cohost considers a next move, NBC ponders the void

By Gillian Flynn
Updated August 01, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

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Next on ”Today”…Katie Couric decides whether she’ll bid adieu to NBC’s top-rated morning show. Though Couric’s four-year, $28 million contract does not expire until 2002, the reigning queen of Rockefeller Center has been quietly meeting with syndicators and at least one rival network to explore her options. ”It’ll be 11 years that she’s been here,” says Jeff Zucker, who became president of NBC Entertainment last December after nine years as ”Today”’s exec producer. ”She could do it for another 11 if she wants — she could do whatever she wants. And she’s trying to decide right now what [that is].”

No need for panic on the promenade just yet: Most insiders doubt that Couric, 44, will make an announcement anytime soon. ”It’s fun to be romanced,” explains one network exec. (The coanchor and her castmates were unavailable for comment.) But clearly it’s a concern for NBC, which earns a reported $450 million annually from the show. At the TV press tour July 19, network president Andrew Lack noted that re-signing both Couric and ”NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw — whose contract is also up next year — was a top priority (though he also said the net’s syndicated arm would be interested in producing a talk show for Couric).

So what would Katie want? Some industry sources say she’d like to give up the morning grind and spend more time with her two daughters, Ellie, 10, and Carrie, 5; others have her shopping around a serious issues show. (One slot that will be open in fall 2002 is Rosie O’Donnell’s syndicated gabfest.)

If she does ditch, expect competition for the seat next to Matt Lauer to be fierce. ”Regardless of how they handle it, it’s going to be a really difficult transition,” says media analyst Anthony Mora.

Katie’s Manolo Blahniks would not be easy to fill. NBC needs someone who can grill President Bush, sympathize with Chandra Levy’s parents, and tease Mel Gibson. Not to mention win over Couric loyalists. Just ask Deborah Norville, who endured a rocky transition taking over the ”Today” gig from Jane Pauley in 1989. ”The attacks will happen. Just don’t give them the ammo — let them make it up, as they did with me,” warns the ”Inside Edition” host. ”But it’s a gas to sit on the front row as history passes by.”

Traditionally, NBC has tended to promote internal candidates (like former ”Today” newsman Lauer) — a good sign for the show’s current news anchor, Ann Curry. (The 44-year-old is already morning-friendly, covering everything from Kosovo to the McCaughey septuplets.) But if the network decides to expand its search, here are a few newswomen waiting in the Peacock’s wings.

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