Top of the Morning

01/03/2002 at 03:41 PM EST

Now, despite the family loss, friends say Katie's spirits are high. When she gave the go-ahead on the deal with NBC, she achieved the goal she has said was most important to her when she first got into journalism as a desk assistant for ABC's Washington, D.C., bureau -- where her bosses included Sam Donaldson -- some 20 years ago: Not riches (she was already earning $7 million a year), but respect. "Time and again she has shown that she can handle any interview," says Tom Shales, TV critic for The Washington Post. "Osama bin Laden, if he came on the show, or Mariah Carey." Says Michael Gartner, the former NBC News president who hired Couric: "She has what my 99-year-old father calls an 'affidavit face.' You look at her and believe her. People see something in her they relate to and trust."

Which is exactly why every Tom, Dick and Steven -- as in DreamWorks co-owner Steven Spielberg, who courted Couric for a daytime talk show with a $100,000 video featuring people waving signs saying "We Love You, Katie" -- spent the better part of 2001 trying to woo her. "Certain people have an indefinable something," says 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt, who early last year broached the subject of bringing her on board the CBS news show. "It's what made a Walter Cronkite a Walter Cronkite. It's not easily defined -- it just is. It's a mystique."

It was math that brought General Electric chairman Jeffrey Immelt -- who oversees the sprawling corporation that includes NBC -- to urge Couric to stay. With revenues upward of $350 million a year, Today beats out even prime-time favorites such as Friends and Frasier as the network's biggest earner. And while Today co-host Matt Lauer, as well as weatherman Al Roker and news anchor Ann Curry, are part of the team's appeal, Couric, says pal and Extra senior executive producer Lisa Gregorisch-Dempsey, is "the jewel in the crown." A jewel the show needs to flash more than ever. In 2000 Today beat out ABC's Good Morning America and CBS's The Early Show by as many as 2 million viewers on some days; in 2001, for the first time in six years, its numbers declined. For a time in December Today's lead over No. 2-ranked GMA dropped to about 600,000, but soon afterward had climbed back to about 1.6 million. At a time when a slowing economy has meant cost-cutting by many companies -- NBC has reduced its staff 5 percent nationwide -- Couric's windfall has reportedly led to some grumbling in the studio, where Couric has long had a reputation as a hard-driving boss. "She can be very demanding," says one former staffer. "People get burned out."

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