NBC is about to shuffle the deck of the most profitable news program on television.
The network is expected to hold a news conference Monday morning to announce that Ann Curry will succeed Meredith Vieira as the co-host of “Today,” the sprawling morning show that Ms. Vieira and Matt Lauer have anchored for five years. Ms. Curry is likely to take Ms. Vieira’s seat in June, according to people with direct knowledge of the appointment who also described plans for the news conference.
NBC will reveal that Natalie Morales, a 9 a.m. anchor of “Today,” will replace Ms. Curry as the news anchor, and Savannah Guthrie, a White House correspondent and MSNBC anchor, will become the 9 a.m. anchor.
Ms. Vieira’s decision to leave was entirely her own, by all accounts.
Ms. Curry, who has been the news anchor on “Today” for 14 years, is well known and well liked by viewers. NBC executives and outsiders with experience in morning television see the shift as both logical for the show and to be expected by its big audience. But they agree that any change in the familiar cast of “Today” carries risk.
The changes at “Today” are occurring as there is unusual upheaval across the news landscape. Last week, Katie Couric, who left “Today” five years ago to become the evening news anchor at CBS, announced her intention to leave that programas her contract with the network ends next month. Early this week, CBS is poised to announce that Scott Pelley, a correspondent on “60 Minutes,” will succeed her. Another anchor, Erin Burnett of CNBC, announced plans last week to join CNN.
The changes at “Today” carry so much significance because the show is far and away the top profit maker in a network news business that is financially pressed on multiple fronts. “Something around $200 million a year in profit is a good estimate,” said one veteran executive associated with the show. The executive, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the changes at “Today” were not yet official.
No other news show approaches that profit figure. NBC has essentially turned “Today” into its morning fortress, expanding it to four hours, twice as long as its competitors.
Those competitors at ABC and CBS have made personnel changes in recent years, seeking a slice of “Today’s” bountiful profits should it lose ground. And they are watching this spring’s transition carefully. But to date “Today” has been the most impregnable show in television history, with a ratings winning streak that stretches 800 consecutive weeks.
Even a minor dip in the dominance of “Today” grabs outsize attention, as did last week’s news that ABC’s “Good Morning America” had cut “Today’s” usual lead of some 800,000 viewers to fewer than 600,000 for one week.
“Today” has maintained its pre-eminence through a skillful series of transitions from its established stars to new hosts. Now that is in new hands: Vieira-to-Curry is the first big talent transition for Comcast to manage since it took over NBC in January.
When Ms. Couric left five years ago, NBC went outside the “Today” cast and the news division’s staff to hire Ms. Vieira, a former CBS News correspondent who had become the host of ABC’s daytime talk hit, “The View.”
The move proved successful, though it struck some of the show’s regular viewers as an obvious slight to Ms. Curry, who had put in more than a decade and seemed to be the next co-host in waiting. Ms. Curry and her agent expressed unhappiness at the time, the veteran NBC executive said, and she had to be convinced that she was still held in high regard at the network.
She agreed to stay and set about to solidify her news profile on the show by making numerous trips to sites of breaking news, often to scenes of natural disasters like the earthquake in Haiti last year, or other locations struck by tragedy, like Darfur, Pakistan, Syria and Kosovo.
“My dream has been to be a journalist of our time,” she told graduates at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., last year. “My aim is to reveal the truth about war, genocide, crimes against humanity and other human suffering.”
Tom Touchet, who was the executive producer of “Today” from 2002 to 2005, said of Ms. Curry, “She is as good and caring off-air as she appears to be on-air. That’s a rare, special quality.”
"There’ll be no question she’ll be what America wants..."
Ms. Curry raised her profile further by hosting prime time “Dateline” specials, filling in on the “Nightly News” and embracing Twitter, the social media Web site. Her popularity on “Today” has soared in recent years. “She connects with the audience, and in morning television it’s all about connecting with the audience,” said Steve Friedman, the longtime morning television producer who served two tours of duty at “Today.”
Ms. Curry’s television Q Score, a proprietary measure of familiarity and appeal, suggests that she has a wide following. In the survey, which asks people to identify their favorite people on television, Ms. Curry has a high score of 21, one point better than Ms. Vieira. The average Q Score for a news person is 12, according to Henry Schafer, an executive vice president at Q Scores.
Ms. Curry has a slightly stronger appeal among younger men, “which I’m sure NBC would be happy to see,” he said.
That level of popularity may have made it easier for NBC to consider her for the promotion to the co-host job with Mr. Lauer, but she had something else going for her. Two executives familiar with the terms said Ms. Curry won a clause in her current contract that assured her that if she did not get the promotion this time, her contract would be voided and she would be available to move elsewhere immediately.
“Today” has been anticipating Ms. Vieira’s departure since at least last spring, when she opted for a one-year contract instead of a more common long-term agreement. She has been leaning toward leaving for months, according to people who know her, because that would give her more time with her family.
Ms. Curry, 54, and Ms. Vieira, 57, did not respond to requests for comment. NBC said it would not comment on speculation.
The main questions about Ms. Curry have always been how well she could manage the personality-oriented parts of the show, including cooking segments, celebrity interviews and self-deprecating banter. Can she be warm and fuzzy — and believable?
“She’ll be able to handle that,” Mr. Friedman said. “She hasn’t before because in just a day or two you can’t get into the rhythm of the show. Morning television is about rhythm. When she gets into that rhythm, there’ll be no question she’ll be what America wants.”