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Good Morning, Meredith

By RD Heldenfels Published: September 13, 2006

Meredith Vieira started on the ''Today'' show this morning. Here's a preview of the bloggish column I wrote about her debut for tomorrow's Beacon Journal:

The best moment on Wednesday's Today show may have been NBC anchor Brian Williams making fun of the daytime program's new set. The ickiest was probably the interview with Debra Lafave, an apparently inarticulate and overly made-up woman famous for having sex with a 14-year-old boy when she was 23 and a teacher in his school.

    Standing in between -- and sitting, and even dancing a smidge -- was Meredith Vieira, the newscaster more recently known as one of the co-hosts of ABC's The View. Wednesday was her first appearance as new co-host of Today, succeeding Katie Couric, who has gone to CBS to anchor its evening news.

    Today has never been shy about playing up the personalities and private lives of its stars, and there was plenty of that in the first hour-and-a-half of the three-hour program, which was all I could stand to watch.

     I maxed out when Willard Scott and Gene Shalit took Vieira in hand for a brief stroll while singing Follow the Yellow Brick Road. But even before that, I was reminding myself -- indeed, pleading with myself -- that most people don't watch an entire Today telecast, and I had probably seen everything I needed in the first half hour.

    After all, this morning was about introducing Vieira to an audience that may not have watched The View, let alone her news work before that. So in the first half hour, people learned that:

    -- Vieira thought that being with co-host Matt Lauer was ``like the first day of school and I'm sitting next to the cutest guy.''

    --  Her family had given her a bracelet to mark the occasion.

    -- She once had a hamster named Al. (This by way of greeting weatherman and former Clevelander Al Roker.)

     -- She thinks  NBC's Tim Russert is ``a genius.''

     -- She laughs easily.

    -- She's comfortable needling Lauer, bringing up his recent swimsuit photo in People magazine and the ribbing he got about it from President Bush.

    -- She's very human, messing up her first introduction of a commercial break.

     Not that it was all frivolity. Vieira interviewed Russert about the latest political controversy between the White House and the Democrats, to demonstrate early on that she can talk about hard-news issues.

     Nor is she treated any differently from other elements of the show in terms of being the story instead of reporting it. Witness Lauer's People photo, or the tour of the show's new studio.

    Still, she wasn't kidding much when she said the second half-hour was ``all about me.'' A prepared profile of her, covering her childhood, her career and her family life, ran about 6 1/2 minutes. Lauer's interview with Lafave, touted repeatedly during the newscast, wasn't as long.

    Which gets to the basic lesson of Wednesday's show. Maybe you'll like Vieira. Maybe you won't. Either way, you'll see plenty of her. And I'll still prefer getting the morning's headlines from the Internet.

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