PASADENA, Calif. -- America's first family travels like the royal family. Or at least like the president and vice president.
When journeying to the West Coast to meet the press to discuss the expansion of NBC's "Today," anchors Katie Couric and Matt Lauer flew on separate planes.
"God forbid there's a disaster and we're all on the same plane -- you lose your whole show," said executive producer Jeff Zucker. "You might have good ratings the next day, but the following week it would be a problem."
Couric and newsreader Ann Curry traveled in one commercial jetliner, while Lauer and weather jester Al Roker took another flight.
"It's kind of a morbid thought, isn't it?" Couric said following the "Today" press conference.
But morbid thoughts are rare for the top-rated morning news show. The "Today" crew is concentrating on expanding to three hours, 7 to 10 a.m., beginning Oct. 2. Just before that, the show will broadcast from Australia and the Olympics for three weeks. And in January 2002, "Today" will celebrate its 50th anniversary.
The "Today" expansion means the death of "Later Today," although Florence Henderson will contribute to the new final hour of "Today" twice a month.
Zucker said the new hour of "Today" will be similar in tone to the show's lighter 8 a.m. hour. Couric and Lauer will be on hand for the first half-hour, with Curry and Roker taking over at 9:30 a.m.
"I've been at NBC 15 years, and this is something that's been talked about off and on that entire time," Zucker said.
"I thought it made perfect sense," Couric said of the additional hour. "It's cheap and profitable programming, and we have plenty to talk about."
Lauer said his initial concern was, "Are [viewers] going to get sick of 'America's First Family'?"
"Sicker!" Couric added with a laugh.
Lauer is now convinced the additional hour won't dilute the "Today" franchise, but he said he is sick of interviewing Darva Conger, who married Rick Rockwell on "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?"
"I've done three interviews with Ms. Conger, and I'll be candid with you," Lauer said. "I've been with the 'Today' show six years, including my time as newscaster, and in that time I've only had one disagreement with our executive producer that resulted in words being exchanged. It was the second interview [with Conger]."
Lauer said he originally had sympathy for Conger when she came on "Today" and said she wanted to get out of the public eye. Then he saw her trying to get into the Vanity Fair party after the Oscars. After the second interview, he asked her if she'd be back again, and she said no. Then she agreed to do Playboy and returned to the limelight. He asked her again after the third interview if she'd remain in the public eye, and Conger said, "Only if I do something amazing."
Lauer replied, "Well, then, it's really been good knowing you."
At the "Today" press conference, there was much discussion about journalism ethics and CBS's decision to put the "Early Show" news anchor on the entertainment show "Big Brother." Zucker said that's not something he would allow, but if NBC ever gets a reality show on the air, he will broadcast interviews with the participants.
"We don't like to be seen as a promotional tool for NBC," Zucker said. "On the other hand, we understand that from time to time we do promotion for NBC Entertainment. Similarly, we sit around and talk about 'Survivor' because it's part of the fabric of this summer. ... I think it's the degree to which [CBS has] devoted the next morning's program [to the person who was kicked off]."
With the success of "Today," there's also been an increase in gossip about the show's stars in the supermarket tabloids.
"It happens because people wake up with us, and they think we're part of their family, so there is some fascination," Lauer said. "It's the same fascination we have about the politicians and people in the news we cover. Is it distasteful? Gosh, it's really distasteful."
He said the biggest frustration is how many people believe the tabloids. A recent tabloid report claimed he and Couric are feuding, which Lauer dismissed.
"She called me that night and said, 'You aren't going to believe what's in the Enquirer,' " Lauer said. "We laugh about it, we joke about it, but it can be harmful if people in your family are offended by it."
PAX UPDATE: The long and tortured saga of Pax TV's efforts to get into the Pittsburgh market continues. The most recent deal to put Pax on AT&T cable collapsed when AT&T realized it couldn't drop WQEX and had no other slots available.
"We're still determined to get in the market," said Pax TV President Jeff Sagansky before a Pax press conference. "It's the biggest market we're not in. We seem to be a little cursed in Pittsburgh, but eventually we'll find a way on through cable."
Sagansky said discussions with other cable systems are continuing.
Pax originally tried to buy a broadcast station in a complex deal involving Cornerstone TeleVision and WQED's sister station, WQEX, but that fell through in January.
"It's been very difficult for us to get an over-the-air channel," Sagansky said. "There's really nothing to buy there."
"TITANS" ADDITION: Lourdes Benedicto, a 1996 graduate of the theater program at Carnegie Mellon University, has been added to the cast of NBC's new Aaron Spelling soap, "Titans." She'll play Samantha Sierras, the "promising executive assistant" to the Williams family patriarch, played by Perry King.
Previously, Benedicto spent a year-and-a-half on "NYPD Blue" as the wife of James Martinez (Nick Turturro).
MORE "BROTHER": In an effort to shore up sagging ratings for "Big Brother," CBS will add a sixth night of the show to air immediately after "Survivor," beginning next week. This live, one-hour installment will be the one where the houseguests nominate two members for banishment. (Viewers pick which one gets the boot a week later). A half-hour version will air on Thursdays.
BEATLES MOVIE: NBC will produce "In His Life: The John Lennon Story," a new two-hour movie about the formative years of the Beatles founder. The movie will air this fall.
JOINING "THE PRACTICE": Jason Kravits, who had a recurring role on ABC's "The Practice" last season as annoying Assistant District Attorney Richard Bay, has been upped to a series lead this season.
"I went into this thinking it was going to be a one-or-two-episode deal," Kravits said. "[David E. Kelley] liked what the character was doing; he liked the rapport Lara Flynn Boyle and I had. I just take whatever script comes my way and do it to my best ability."
Filming on a new season of "The Practice" began yesterday, but as of Monday night, the stars had yet to receive a script and had no details on what to expect for their characters this season.
"I want to win a few more [cases]," Kravits said. "I need that. I need a little ego boost on this show. But the show is called 'The Practice,' and that's who people root for."
"Practice" star Camryn Manheim made two films during her hiatus, one for Showtime and "The Last Laugh," a movie she starred in and produced for ABC. She called it a take-off on "Cyrano de Bergerac" set in the New York comedy club scene.
"It stars me and Scott Cohen from 'The 10th Kingdom,' " Manheim said. "He's a beautiful agent who is looking for a great comedy talent, and he falls in love with this cute, petite, blond girl who he thinks is so smart because her comedy is so funny, but really she's a dumbbell and I'm writing all her material for her. So he's falling in love with her because she's so smart, but he's really falling in love with me because it's my material. I'm totally in love with him, and all hell breaks loose, and if you know 'Cyrano,' you know the end of the story."
Post-Gazette TV Editor Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association summer press tour through Tuesday.