Meredith Vieira, leans on the shoulder of her fellow co-host...

Meredith Vieira, leans on the shoulder of her fellow co-host Matt Lauer during her final show on the NBC "Today" program. (June 8, 2011) Credit: AP

Meredith Vieira has spent her last morning hosting TV’s most-watched morning show.

The popular “Today” co-anchor ended her five-year run on Wednesday, telling viewers her decision to go is “right, but it’s hard.” That decision was clearly hers alone. Seated beside co-host Matt Lauer, she has helped keep “Today” the audience front-runner among network morning shows. Vieira, 57, has explained she wants to spend more time with her family.

Lauer called Vieira’s final day “a very bittersweet Wednesday morning.” The broadcast made room for news about the nation’s severe-heat advisories and scandal-ridden Congressman Anthony Weiner’s Twitter woes. But throughout the show, tributes and highlight reels honored Vieira’s “Today” tenure.

Vieira wiped her eyes as she was serenaded by Carole King with a Vieira favorite, “You’ve Got a Friend.” Then, spontaneously, she led the “Today” gang across the studio to gather around King at the piano. 

Later, in a creative and technical tour de force, Vieira was surprised with a starring role in a live music video to the tune of Journey’s rousing classic “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Led by various members of the “Today” company, Vieira scampered and danced from the studio through the warrens of the “Today” control room and offices, then up the stairs and outside to Rockefeller Plaza where she was cheered by the gathered crowd.

The number ended in a cast-of-hundreds, Hollywood-worthy production number including Jimmy Fallon miming the song’s soaring guitar licks. (Special mention to the camera operator who caught the entire thing in a single flowing shot.) A few minutes later, it was time to go.

Saying “I adore you,” Lauer told Vieira he marvels “that for someone who’s got talent as large as yours, how small your ego is. You’ve taught us all how to be great teammates.”

Weather anchor Al Roker called Vieira’s “Today” stay “five of the greatest years of our lives.” But the good years should continue for “Today.” In what should be a smooth transition, “Today” show veteran Ann Curry will take over for Vieira at the anchor desk.

Meredith Vieira debuted as Lauer’s “Today” partner on a Wednesday in September 2006, saying she felt “like it’s the first day of school and I’m sitting next to the cutest guy.” She was a longtime CBS newswoman, host of daytime’s “The View” and emcee of the syndicated game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” (where she continues).

But she had big shoes to fill: Those of Katie Couric, who had left NBC and “Today” to take over as anchor of “The CBS Evening News.” “Today” continued with Vieira without suffering so much as a hiccup. Now it has gone more than 15 years not losing a single week in the ratings to either ABC’s or CBS’ morning competition.

"My one goal was not to mess it up,” Vieira said last December when “Today” crossed the 15-year mark. “I didn’t want to be the one in the anchor chair when we fell from first to second. I was really, really scared about that.”

Vieira’s predecessor, Couric, has recently exited CBS, and on Monday she announced she would be going to ABC, where she will report for the news division and, next year, launch a syndicated talk show.

In recent months, her much-reported interest in a talk show had sparked doubts about Lauer’s future on “Today,” where he has been a fixture since 1994.

But in early May, Lauer said that although he had discussed re-teaming with Couric for a syndicated venture, “it’s not going to happen.” He said he would be staying put at the “Today” show “for a long time.”

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