Even in college, Deborah Norville was such a natural in front of the camera that she became a television reporter almost in spite of herself.
“I got into the business totally by accident,” Norville says. “I wanted to be a litigator—that’s what I’m pretty sure I would have been darn good at.”
Norville’s path to broadcasting started as a high school student in Dalton, Ga. During her senior year, she entered a Junior Miss pageant with the idea of earning money for college. She signed up—with her talent being that she could sew her own clothes, something she’s still passionate about—and won. She also won the state competition, which meant she was headed to nationals.
There, she fared less well but she saw something that sparked her interest—television production.
“I saw the production guys who were working like dogs, but they seemed to love what they were doing,” she says. “I was fascinated by the glamour of it.”
Norville was headed to college, but her pageant experience had altered her route.
“I tested out of my freshman year, switched schools to the University of Georgia and changed my major to broadcasting,” she says.
During her junior year, she interned at a local public TV station and did some on-air pieces. The wife of the GM of WAGA Atlanta (then a CBS affiliate) saw her and showed the tape to her husband. As a result, Norville spent that summer working at WAGA; three days in, she was given her first on-air assignment.
She didn’t feel like she knew what she was doing but she knew enough—through school, her previous internship and her own independent study of famous broadcasters—to get through it, and signed off, charmingly enough, as “Debbie Norville, Eyewitness News TV 5.”
She stayed with the station as a weekend reporter through her senior year. After she graduated, she was named weekend anchor in October 1979. She stayed with WAGA until January 1982, when she moved to WMAQ Chicago as a reporter, and later became the weekday anchor for the 4:30 p.m. news.
In 1986, Norville was looking to move to New York—not because it was the nation’s top market, but because the man with whom she had fallen in love, Swedish businessman Karl Wellner (now her husband of 29 years), lived there. She put out some feelers and got an audition on NBC News at Sunrise, a national news program that aired just before Today.
In January 1987, she was named full-time anchor of NBC News at Sunrise, replacing Connie Chung. The program’s ratings jumped by 40% upon her arrival.
Her quick rise continued in Sept. 1989 when she started as the news anchor at Today. Shortly thereafter, Jane Pauley announced she would be departing the program, and Norville was named coanchor, alongside Bryant Gumbel, in her place. The media interpreted the move as Norville pushing Pauley out, and ratings dropped.
“The one thing I would have done differently is that when the rumors started in the press that I had been maneuvering behind the scenes to push Jane Pauley out, I would have ignored the NBC publicity people’s advice to not speak to the press and told them my side of the story,” Norville says.
In March 1991, Norville had her first child and took maternity leave, ultimately deciding not to return to Today.
She returned to the entertainment business when she was offered the chance to take over a radio show that had been hosted by Sally Jessy Raphael. After some initial reluctance, Norville finally agreed, and in September 1992, The Deborah Norville Show: From Her Home to Yours began airing in primetime on the ABC Talk Radio Network. It was a boon to be broadcasting from her home, which she did for 15 hours a week.
That was enough to get her confidence back. In October 1993, she was hired as a correspondent on CBS News’ Street Stories, hosted by Ed Bradley. Norville quickly rose once again, becoming the Sunday and rotating weekend anchor of the CBS Evening News.
In 1995, Norville made the last major move she’s made in her career thus far, taking over for Bill O’Reilly as anchor of Inside Edition.
This season begins her 21st on the syndicated news magazine. The show usually runs second among all syndicated magazines and in the past year, it has frequently broken Entertainment Tonight’s long-running winning streak.
Through the course of her long career Norville has learned many things, foremost among them to stand up for herself and in what she believes: “If you don’t stand up for what’s right and you don’t argue in favor of fairness, then why are you in the game?” she says.
“Deborah is extraordinarily skilled,” says Inside Edition executive producer Charles Lachman. “You see her on the air and you know instantly that this is a star. She’s a force of nature who assumes command of the stories.”
“I think the thing that singles her out is her optimism,” says Jack Abernethy, copresident of Fox News and CEO of the Fox Television Stations. “For a journalist to stay at that level for that long, she’s managed to be devoid of cynicism. You see that personally with her as well as on the air.”
Beyond what she does for Inside Edition, Norville also has raised three children; kept up with her crafting, including launching a yarn line; written bestselling books; and been a board member for the Broadcasters Foundation of America (BFA), which supports broadcasters who find themselves in need after natural disasters or other life events.
“She’s a very passionate person,” says Dan Mason, chairman of the Broadcasters Foundation and former president/CEO of CBS Radio. “I joke with her that she went to the University of Georgia and she’s very like that school’s mascot. When she gets her teeth into something, she’s like a bulldog and she never lets go until she sees it all the way to the end. But even with all this drive, she always carries herself with class and grace.”