Fifth Estater: One Successful Step After Another
Through hustle, hard work—and working mornings—Deborah Norville carved out a career
By Paige Albiniak -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/11/2009 7:00:00 PM
Even as a teenager, Deborah Norville had the looks and talent to get in any door, but it was her nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic that kept her there. Her years in the news business have been a series of quick successes, with one notorious failure.
Norville got her first break early on, when she was hired as on-air talent at WAGA Atlanta. The station manager's wife noticed a blue-eyed blonde covering legislative proceedings on Georgia Educational TV, where Norville had an internship while studying at the University of Georgia.
“It was a god-awful dull story, but I found myself drawn to the set and to her delivery,” says Shelly Schwab, then WAGA's station manager. “I had a newsperson track her down. There was something there worth investigating. I hired her as an intern, but we quickly knew the time she would spend with us would be very limited.”
Norville started at WAGA in the summer of 1978, receiving an on-air assignment to cover a firemen's picnic—even though she had no real professional reporting experience—on her third day. She did so well that in the fall, the station offered her a weekend job. She would drive in from school in Athens, Ga., to work from 8:30 a.m. through the 11:30 p.m. news, sometimes sleeping in her car. She graduated and after Labor Day 1979 she joined the station, and had an anchor slot by November of that year.
As Schwab predicted, Norville's time at the station was short. When the time came, Norville, then 23, moved to NBC-owned station WMAQ Chicago, where she started as a general-assignment reporter during a cold January.
She volunteered for everything, including Today show cut-ins. “That gets you known in a market a little more quickly and it gets you into the office before everyone else, so you have first dibs on the better stories,” she says.
To win those dibs, Norville had to brave 20-below temperatures and take a bus in the dark to arrive at the station around 5 a.m. It wasn't long before she was promoted to weekend co-anchor and then weekday afternoon anchor.
Norville dazzled Chicago for five years until she fell in love with the man who would become her husband, Karl Weller, based in New York; they decided her career was more flexible than his.
They were right. Upon arriving in Manhattan, Norville promptly landed a week-long audition at NBC, where Connie Chung had just left NBC News at Sunrise. After a few days on the anchor desk, she was offered the job, which required arriving each morning at 2:30 a.m.
Soon, she was filling in at the Today show. That opened the one controversial chapter of Norville's charmed life. Norville initially came on as the news reader, but ended up taking Jane Pauley's seat next to Bryant Gumbel in January 1990. The New York media were fixated on the notion that Norville had maneuvered Pauley out of the way, but Norville and Gumbel never settled into an easy early-morning patter. By February 1991, Norville was at the end of a complicated pregnancy. She took maternity leave, replaced by Katie Couric. And in April 1991, NBC announced Couric would take her place permanently.
“That was a real period of depression for me, which was self-diagnosed and self-cured,” she says. “Maybe that's why Deborah Norville is a better story today. I could have gone off into the sunset and no one would have blamed me.”
That's exactly what she did not do. A few months later, ABC Radio offered her a radio show. She came up with every objection she could think of, but ABC persisted. The Deborah Norville Radio Show was launched, broadcast from Norville's home.
“I loved it immediately. It was three hours each day of seat-of-your-pants broadcasting,” she says.
By 1993, CBS came calling. For the next two years, Norville served as a correspondent and anchor for several programs, including 48 Hours. There, she formed an instant friendship with Susan Zirinsky, executive producer of 48 Hours and CBS News' special projects.
“I admire her and her tenacity,” Zirinsky says. “The test for humanity is how do you keep going, and she kept going. When she arrived at CBS, she was all guns blazing—ready for a new adventure, new friends, new work. She was ready to strut her stuff and work her ass off.”
While Norville's career grew, so did her family. “I had baby two on the way, and I was shooting in Brazil for three days when my son called me up and said, 'Mommy, please come home.' Meanwhile, they had offered me the Sunday night anchor slot at CBS, and then I would have been on the road the rest of the week.”
Norville decided to put her family first. That's when Inside Edition came to Norville. With its New York headquarters and regular hours, it was a perfect fit.
“They were looking for someone with network credibility to shed the tabloid pinup image they had earned for themselves, and I was delighted to be on a program that was based in New York,” she says.
Nearly 14 years later, Norville loves telling news stories as much as ever. She's also embraced the business of syndication. “I talk to her about ratings, shares, time periods, dayparts, news lead-ins, and she gets the whole thing,” says Joe DiSalvo, president of sales for CBS Television Distribution. “She's a student of the business.”
Over the years, Inside Edition has changed. It's gotten faster. And Norville's executive producer, Charles Lachman, says no one can tell those stories like Norville.
“Our meat-and-potatoes remains the investigative stories and the hard-news stories. Deborah has years of experience delivering those sorts of stories on a network level,” Lachman says. “There are very few people who have that sort of range, who can deliver both the hard and the soft. She does both with credibility.”
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