By FRAZIER MOORE
NEW YORK — Nearly four years after they clashed in a memorable TV interview, Sarah Palin and Katie Couric face off again — this time in a morning-show battle royale.
Viewers will cast their votes with their clickers today.
If you’re a Couric fan who misses those bygone mornings on the “Today” show, then click to “Good Morning America,” where Couric, now an ABC star, is subbing all week for co-host Robin Roberts.
But maybe you love the “mama grizzly” panache of Sarah Palin. And maybe you’re still miffed by how Couric, then anchoring the “CBS Evening News,” went to town on Palin during the 2008 presidential race. Then tune into NBC’s “Today,” where, during the 8 a.m. EDT hour, Palin will serve as a guest host at Couric’s old haunt. (Take that, Katie!)
Welcoming the former Alaska governor to Studio 1A is the “Today” show’s brashest counter-move after “GMA,” the scrappy ratings runner-up, announced Couric’s fill-in role last week.
On Monday’s show, the “Today” crew checked in by phone with Palin, who, reporting from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, declared, “We’re making that trek cross-country to see y’all and say hi to your good viewers.”
“What are you doing to prepare — are you reading some newspapers?” joked host Matt Lauer. He was alluding to an embarrassing moment from the Couric interview, when Palin couldn’t name any newspapers she regularly read, instead replying that she read “all of them, any of them that have been in front of me over all these years.”
“That’s a fine how-do-you-do! Here we go!” Palin laughed on Monday. But, turning serious, she added, “I appreciate NBC’s boldness in having me on. Doesn’t it kind of reflect some of that diversity of opinion that you espouse?”
“Or desperation,” cracked former host Meredith Vieira, who was making a surprise appearance.
But “Today” isn’t exactly desperate. Unrelenting is more like it, especially as “GMA” whittles away at the ratings gap that has kept “Today” on top every week since December 1995. The most recent Nielsen report found “GMA” had only 137,000 fewer viewers than “Today” (an average of 4.84 million to 4.98 million), the closest the two shows have been since 2008.
Clearly, “Today” isn’t going to sacrifice its winning streak without a fight.
The guest turn by Palin, who, before she entered politics worked briefly as a local TV sportscaster, was announced over the weekend on NBC’s website. The network promised she would “reveal a different side” than viewers have seen before. During the 7 a.m. hour, she will also submit to an interview.
But “Today” has other viewer-luring tricks up its sleeve.
Announced guests this week include reality stars Giuliana and Bill Rancic (who appeared on Monday) and Kim Kardashian, as well as “Octomom” Nadya Suleman, Tori Spelling and over-the-top pop singer Nicki Minaj, who will perform live.
NBC teased that an undisclosed “Today” show “legend” would make a return visit on Monday’s show. The legend turned out to be Vieira, who only exited last June. (She was back to announce she will re-join “Today” in London for the Summer Olympics.)
As if that weren’t enough excitement, NBC broke the news in a Twitter posting that Tuesday’s show would also include what it termed “a big NBC announcement” by ubiquitous TV personality Ryan Seacrest.
But all of this pales in comparison to the main event: Tuesday’s morning-show showdown between Palin and Couric.
The original bout in October 2008 was a clear win for Couric, no matter if you thought she conducted a fair interview for which Palin was dismally underprepared or if you believe she came at Palin with a fusillade of unfair “gotcha” questions.
What will happen Tuesday?
Might either Palin or Couric make a reference, veiled or barbed, to the other? Which of them will score the higher ratings for this head-to-head hour? Will “Today” show devotees with an aversion to Palin turn to “GMA” to register their protest?
And will some viewers skip this rematch, if that’s what it is, altogether? An available alternative, third-place rival “CBS This Morning,” will likely be more focused on news than stunts.