It was the top of the show, and Bryant Gumbel was making it official: Deborah Norville, out on maternity leave since Feb. 22, would not be returning to NBC's Today. Her substitute, Today's Washington, D.C.—based national correspondent Katie Couric—the bright-faced, five-months-pregnant woman sitting beside him—would, henceforth, be his coanchor. "Katie is now a permanent fixture up here, a member of our family, an especially welcome one," said Gumbel. "Deborah Norville is not."

Ouch. Gumbel, who couldn't have intended to be that blunt, rushed on. "We had some—some good times here." he said, summing up not very accurately Norville's unhappy 14-month tenure as Jane Pauley's successor. From the very week Norville took over, the previously top-rated Today unfailingly ranked behind its ABC rival, Good Morning, America. Meanwhile, NBC News execs, whose swift promotion of Norville at Pauley's expense had created a public-relations fiasco larger than weatherman Willard Scott's shadow, consoled Pauley with her own series, Real Life, and brought in new "family members," including Faith Daniels and Couric, to help buoy the sinking franchise.

For her part, Norville insists it was no big, bad network honcho but tiny Karl Nikolai "Niki" Wellner, her son born Feb. 27, who gave her the nudge to the sidelines. "Any parent would understand that my first responsibility is to Niki," says Norville, 32, who plans to stay home at least a year. "This was my decision. Truly. I don't care if no one believes me." As for other questions (like what happens to the remaining three years on her reported $5 million contract, and was her agent indeed pitching her talents to other networks?), she doesn't care to answer.

In any event, NBC seems to have been ready to throw her out with the bathwater, especially after she posed, breast-feeding Niki, for PEOPLE (March 25). "Network brass," says an NBC source, "found the photo self-serving and embarrassing." But the real determining factor, the source adds, was that, with Couric at the helm, "ratings have been going up."

Yet Norville is not without her sympathizers. "Let me tell you," says another network insider, "no one said, 'Great! We finally got rid of that bitch.' She was a lovely lady. NBC never went to bat for her." On the other hand, Couric—the fourth, and youngest, child of a newspaperman and a housewife—projects a certain sandlot grit that Norville may have lacked. She has what ABC's Washington bureau chief, George Watson (who has worked with her at both ABC and CNN), calls "a girl-next-door quality. If you want to wake up to someone who has energy, enthusiasm and intellect, Katie's hard to beat." Impossible to beat, says Sherrie Rollins, a director of news information for ABC and a Couric friend since their days together as students and sorority sisters at the University of Virginia, where Couric (who grew up in Arlington) was an American Studies major. "To see Katie," she says, "is to know there is no stopping her."

The Unstoppable One, 34, came to NBC News in 1989 after a decade of reporting and producing jobs with NBC affiliates in Miami and Washington. With her easygoing humor and no-nonsense talent for landing big stories (including Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's first postwar interview), Couric was rumored to be in line for Norville's job before she was even picked to be her sub.

She's still getting used to the intense media scrutiny that comes with being a Today coanchor. For example, why did she lighten her hair? Was it to give it a honeyed, Jane Pauley tint? "It's simple," she says, "My mother called and said, 'Your hair looks pretty dull.' And I put some highlights in it."

The real highlights, she hopes, are yet to come. "When my husband [attorney Jay Monahan. 35] woke up Saturday morning." she jokes, "he said, 'You know, you're the coanchor of the Today show. That's a pretty big deal!" And I've been driving in my car and thinking, 'Wow, I guess I am this big deal.' "

And getting bigger by the day. Couric goes on a two-month maternity leave in July, when her first child is due. She and Monahan, who works in Washington, have yet to iron out the details of two-city living—let alone infant care—but she says he'll try to get more cases in New York City, and she'll commute on weekends. "I don't want to dwell on the pregnancy thing," she says. "I've had a really easy time of it." Ah, but does the new coanchor, like the last one. risk being accused of bringing up baby to enhance her image? Couric lets out a long "Nyaaaaaaaaah!"

What words of wisdom does Norville have for Couric? "I wish her lots of luck. And a healthy baby. Do you want me to give her the alarm clock that Jane gave me?" she asks with a laugh. "She obviously already has one that works."

—Tom Gliatto, Alan Carter, Lisa Russell and Joanne Kaufman

  • Contributors:
  • Alan Carter,
  • Lisa Russell,
  • Joanne Kaufman.