To Wake Up Its Sluggish Early Today Show, NBC Anchors Its Hopes on Connie Chung

updated 06/13/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/13/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

To most TV newspersons, Los Angeles is the local anchorman's dream: sunshine, big money, celebrity in the nation's second largest TV market—and an audience that appreciates a nice blow-dry hairdo. But Connie Chung, 36, anchorwoman (at a reported $600,000) for CBS' L.A. affiliate KNXT for the past seven years, wanted more, and next month she'll get it. She leaves the Land of the Hot Tubs to plunge into the more roilsome waters of NBC network news, and the announcement already has caused waves. For in addition to reporting for the network's Nightly News program and covering the 1984 election, Chung will replace Jane Pauley and Bryant Gumbel as anchor of NBC's struggling 6-7 a.m. Early Today and surprisingly has bumped Jessica Savitch as anchor of NBC's Saturday evening news. "I love the idea of a new challenge," says Connie, "but there's no question that it will turn my life upside down." Notes Today and Early Today Exec Producer Steve Friedman: "Connie's future will rise or fall depending on how she does at Early Today."

So may the futures of Today anchors Pauley and Gumbel. Though Chung's ostensible Early Today mission is to build a bigger lead-in audience for them, some media mavens believe Chung is in fact being groomed as their Today successor. That once unassailable show in recent years has dropped to a distant second place in the Nielsens behind ABC's breezy Good Morning America with David Hartman, while feeling the pressure of the no-nonsense approach taken by the third-place CBS Morning News. Producer Friedman, however, insists that "there are no plans" to fire either Pauley or Gumbel. "I'm sick and tired of hearing that Today is going down the tubes," he says testily. "The ratings are down, but CBS has gained only two share points in five [calendar] quarters. Connie is not being brought in to replace Pauley and Gumbel. She's just a valuable addition."

So far the only real loser at NBC is Savitch, who turned down Early Today and soon woke up jobless. Though Chung insists the pair have remained friendly, TV insiders say Connie helped trigger Jessica's ouster. "Connie wanted a weekend anchor spot in addition to Early Today," one insider claims. "She held out for it and she got it." Chung, however, who reportedly took a $200,000 pay cut to land the network job, states that she "never made any conditions" for her hiring. (Savitch reportedly is renegotiating her NBC contract, which expires in September.)

If Savitch's unceremonious removal should cause hard feelings, they would be rarities for Chung, a shrewd, ambitious, yet charming woman who has bruised few egos in her climb to the top. Despite a reputation as a ferociously dedicated worker, Connie insists that "hearing myself called a workaholic makes me sick." Still, with the exception of weekends watching movies and pro basketball and reading newspapers, Chung has few interests but her job. Unmarried and independent, she bristles at suggestions that her move East will make it easier to see sometime boyfriend Washington talk show host Maury Povich, 44. "Would anyone ask a man if he were moving to be nearer a woman?" she demands. "Or would they just assume it was a career choice?"

The youngest of five daughters of a Chiang Kai-shek diplomat turned financial manager who chose to stay in America following the 1949 Chinese Communist revolution, Connie is the only family member born in America. She was raised in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., where she was active in school politics (her classmates included Goldie Hawn and Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein). "I was always a very quiet child, with four older sisters. Then as a journalist suddenly I took on some very aggressive characteristics," she recalls. "I often feel like my father's son. I believe I've carried on the family name in a different way."

Several months before graduating from the University of Maryland in 1969, she landed a copygirl job for a Washington TV station. In 1971 she became one of four women reporters hired by CBS. "I would definitely say being a woman and a minority helped me get hired. It was a male-dominated profession and we took a bit of hazing," says Connie. "Then one day we had paid our dues and it all changed." She quickly came to the fore as a "relentless" and "tenacious" reporter during the Watergate period 10 years ago. After Nixon's resignation she covered Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller but finally tired of Washington ("a five-year anxiety attack") and accepted the L.A. anchor post in 1976.

Chung, who is moving out of her antique-stocked West Hollywood apartment in July, already is mapping out her New York life. "I'm finished with the morning news by 7 a.m., and then I can cover a story. Tom Brokaw, Roger Mudd and the network execs all said 'yes'—so long as I was back by 3:30 a.m." Chung insists she has no ambitions to be "the type who can work, run a household, do charity work, sew, iron and make pasta with every hair in place. I think that's nauseating."

She confesses that she did try cooking once—a stew for her mother's birthday. She let the ingredients simmer for 12 hours and the potatoes came out granitic. "My mother looked at me with total understanding," grins Connie, "and said, 'It's all right, dear. You were meant to do the news.' "

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