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The 'Today' after tomorrow

NEW YORK -- Millions of Americans can scarcely remember a weekday when Katie Couric wasn't a part of their morning routine.

Maybe the ``Today" show was on in the background when they gathered their homework for school. Later, she was there when they gulped a quick cup of coffee before work. In a few years, they'd watch TV while feeding the baby and Couric was still there -- a few hairstyles later. That comes to an end on Wednesday, Couric's last day as ``Today" co host. She'll be feted in a three-hour special edition stuffed with film clips and performances by Tony Bennett, Martina McBride, and the cast of the Broadway show ``Jersey Boys."

How will she be able to hold it all together?

``I haven't really thought about it and worried about it," Couric said. ``I'll do what I've always done for 15 years and be myself. I'll react the way I react."

Couric, 49, will take June off and then report to work at CBS News. She'll start anchoring the ``CBS Evening News" in September.

Her tenure as ``Today" host began on April 5, 1991. She looked impossibly young then next to Bryant Gumbel, her playfulness a perfect counterpoint when he lapsed into self-seriousness. She was pregnant with Elinor at the time, and gave birth to her second daughter, Caroline, in 1996.

Viewers felt an immediate connection. She was family, and fans grieved when Couric's husband Jay Monahan died of colon cancer in 1998 and made her a young widow. Couric evolved from the girl-next-door into someone more glamorous -- a diva at times, some critics thought. For more than a decade, however, she has remained viewers' first choice in the morning.

Jeff Zucker, then the ``Today" executive producer, said he knew she was a natural from that first day.

``She emerged as one of the seminal hosts in morning television history," said Zucker, now CEO of the NBC Universal Television Group. ``She grew up on the air and changed both professionally and personally. She earned her stripes as one of the great news broadcasters in history. I think she'll be remembered for her ability to do both the silly and the important."

Morning shows morph every day from news to a program primarily for stay-at-home women who want entertainment and advice. A host must be able to convincingly interview a head of state and a rock star within minutes of each other.

Couric was tested early. She was being given a tour of the White House in 1992 by first lady Barbara Bush, and had studied up on things like Dolly Madison's tea set. Then President Bush unexpectedly walked in ready to talk, and Couric had to wing it for a 19-minute interview that touched on the presidential campaign and international affairs.

``I saw my life flash before my eyes that morning, at least my career," she remembered.

Interviews with politicians are some of her fondest memories, like call-in shows conducted with Vice President Gore and Ross Perot. Couric's on-air colonoscopy -- a spectacularly successful attempt to raise awareness about the disease that killed her husband -- is an indelible memory of her time on ``Today."

``Because I had to learn so much when Jay was sick and distill a lot of complicated medical ideas for my own edification, I've become good at that for other people," she said. ``I've really enjoyed doing that because hopefully I'm doing a service."

Couric is most proud of giving her all to make each segment a positive experience, whether it's a newsy interview or a cooking segment. She won't miss ``having to go from zero to Mach 10 in 10 minutes every morning."

She makes a startling admission: ``I'm not a morning person."

That said, Couric doesn't feel the urge to take a sledgehammer to her alarm clock for all the years it went off at 5 a.m.

``People are always so disappointed -- they're so sadistic," she said. ``When I tell them that I don't get up at 3, they're really disappointed. The hours are really very manageable. But you really have to jump-start your brain in a fast way. That's a tough experience. To ease into the day a little bit more might be a nice change of pace for me."

Despite jumping to the competition, Couric said NBC has been ``incredibly gracious" during the transition.

``I think I've had a long time to come to grips with this one," Zucker said. ``Obviously, it's bittersweet for all of us."

In September, when Couric shows up in the evening at CBS, Meredith Vieira will move into her chair next to Matt Lauer on ``Today."

Does Couric have any advice for her successor?

``Have fun!" she said.

Healthy baby girl for Jolie and Pitt
It looks like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt got what every parent wants -- a healthy baby. While Namibian officials declined yesterday to give any details on the birth Saturday of Shiloh Nouvel Jolie-Pitt, a doctor at the hospital in Windhoek said there were no complications and the mother and daughter were doing well. ``She is a healthy baby," the doctor said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information. Police ringed the hospital with tight security yesterday, refusing to admit journalists and photographers. Pitt's publicist announced the birth Saturday night.

Jackson visits orphanage in Japan
Michael Jackson visited a Tokyo orphanage yesterday during his first round of public appearances since being acquitted of child molestation charges last year. Jackson was in the city to accept MTV Japan's ``Legend Award" during an earlier ceremony at Yoyogi Olympic Stadium. There, he choked up as he thanked fans for their loyalty. His visit to Japan is the first leg of an Asian swing that will include stops in Singapore, China, and Hong Kong. After weaving through dozens of screaming adult fans outside the downtown orphanage, Jackson was ushered into a gymnasium, where nuns and more than 160 children between the ages of 3 and 18 waited. ``I love you," he told the cheering crowd. Jackson, 47, has been living in Bahrain since being acquitted of child molestation in California in June. He has said he hopes to release a new album in 2007.

Stefani and Rossdale have a boy
Singer Gwen Stefani, wife of British rock star Gavin Rossdale, gave birth to the couple's first child on Friday, a son, her publicist said. The baby, whose full name is Kingston James McGregor Rossdale, weighed 7.5 pounds at birth, a spokesman said.

`X-Men' has fourth-best opening ever
``X-Men: The Last Stand" had the fourth-largest weekend opening in box-office history with an estimated $107 million in ticket sales in the first three days of the Memorial Day holiday. The film had $45.5 million in ticket sales on Friday, making it the second-largest one-day gross in history, trailing only ``Star Wars: Episode III," according to Exhibitor Relations Co. ``Episode III" took in $50 million when it opened in May 2005.

FROM WIRE REPORTS

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