When I woke up Friday morning and checked my iPad and saw the alerts about the Boston Marathon bombing suspect, I did something I rarely do. I turned on the TV to get the latest update.
At some point over the last year and a half, I transitioned from a daily TV news viewer to picking through links on Facebook and Twitter. I still listened to NPR, though.
Considering I began watching NBC’s “Today” show back before I headed to class- in high school- this is a rather recent, and extreme change. All through college, as I rushed to get ready for work, for nearly a decade and a half, I watched. Now that I’m a stay-at-home mom, it would make perfect sense if I had continued the routine. Instead, I tuned out. Why?
I guess it began when Zoe was a few months old. She was sleeping through the night, taking her bottle regularly. We had somewhat of a schedule going (oh for those halcyon days before crazy toddler tantrums…). While she lay peacefully getting in tummy time, I’d plop down and watch “Today.” Meredith Viera was already gone, which was a void, but Ann Curry had always been a favorite of mine. Matt was his usual solid self, while Al was… Al. Yet, I was annoyed.
Did they always rush through real news stories just to get to bad fluff pieces on hair style trends and puppies?
Was there always such a strong push to buy something, rather it be shoes, a book, a DVD (especially something put out by Universal/NBC/Bravo/USA)?
Did “Today” always seem so very “Dateline”-like with stories on Amanda Knox or some other tabloid staple?
Do the Kardashians own stock in Comcast or something? Because they really so seem to appear a lot.
And was it my imagination, but doesn’t it seem like there’s some undercurrent of ugly between “America’s First Family”? I wasn’t sure what, but something seemed quite off between the hosts…
Then before I knew it, I just stopped watching altoghether. I spent my mornings in prayer. Or exercise. Or blogging. Or cooking. Or grocery shopping. Whatever. I just didn’t watch anymore. Even when I did flip on the TV Friday, I *still* didn’t do “Today.” I watched George on “Good Morning America.” The thought of an Ann-less “Today” kept me glued to ABC-7.
Coincidentally, in this week’s New York Times Magazine, there’s an altogether damning account of the drama that has been playing out behind the scenes on “Today,” which has slipped out of first place for the first time since the mid-90’s.
The importance of holding on to the top spot led to intense pressure and, on occasion, pretty bad behavior. Behind the scenes, “Today” regularly came up with new Nielsen ratings tricks (clever use of commercials excluded less-popular segments from ratings); sneaky ways to reward guests for giving interviews (one family received accommodations at an NBC-owned theme park); and stunts to get under the skin of “G.M.A.” (when the competition booked Katie Couric as a weeklong guest host, “Today” countered with her nemesis, Sarah Palin). There was no shortage of squabbling among the hosts over airtime, who got to interview the president, say, or who had to do the talking-animal segment. The key, of course, was preventing viewers from getting even the faintest whiff of the cutthroat attitudes lurking off camera. After all, morning TV, unlike the news or late night, is a team sport in which all the players’ fates are intertwined. And more than any other show, “Today” had sold itself as a family — “America’s First Family.”
The comings and goings of family members on “Today” have always been fraught. But, with the exception of Deborah Norville’s disastrously brief succession of Jane Pauley in 1990, the show’s producers have prided themselves on executing smooth handoffs: from Bryant Gumbel to Lauer in 1997; Couric to Meredith Vieira in 2006; and Vieira to Curry in 2011. The show accomplished these seamless transitions largely by grooming potential successors on the air. Research indicated that viewers preferred it that way; they felt they had a vested interest in the person’s success and often remarked in surveys that they were “rooting” for the person to be promoted all along. Before being promoted to co-host, Couric was a correspondent on the show; Lauer and Curry were news readers. Vieira, who came from “The View” on ABC, was also a known and liked quantity when she landed on “Today,” a promotion to be sure. Each of these transitions was carefully orchestrated to appear as an anointment or a retirement.
Despite the inherent risks of high-profile successions, “Today” managed to defeat “Good Morning America” in the ratings every week since Dec. 11, 1995. By 2012, “the streak,” as it was called in the business, had come to define “Today.” As the show neared 840 consecutive winning weeks, however, it was at risk. On the week starting Jan. 9, for example, the show’s lead over “G.M.A.,” which had been roughly 1.1 million viewers one year earlier, had been cut nearly in half. Viewers were increasingly attracted to “G.M.A.,” which, in the Robin Roberts-George Stephanopoulos era, had become brighter and lighter — the cast was more bubbly and the stories more gossip-laden. And short: If you didn’t like what they were covering, you could just wait 45 seconds and the cast would be on to a Chihuahua playing pool. NBC executives could complain all they wanted about “the crap on ‘G.M.A.,’ ” as one of them put it, but viewers voted every day, and more of them were voting for the competition.
And my poor Ann took a lot of pressure along with blame in regards to those ever precious ratings:
Curry turned out to be out of her depth almost immediately. During her first morning as co-host, on June 9, 2011, she made a joke about not wearing deodorant that made Lauer look genuinely embarrassed. The strikes against her added up fast: her critics said she sounded disingenuous in interviews, had an annoying habit of whisper-talking to grieving guests and struggled to read from the teleprompter. One day early in her tenure, according to a longtime staff member, Lauer told a production assistant, “I can’t believe I am sitting next to this woman.” (Lauer, through a spokeswoman, denied saying this.) Barely a month after she started, [“Today” executive producer Jim Bell] confessed to a former colleague, “It was probably a mistake, but we just didn’t want to wake up and see Ann on another network.” (Bell later denied saying this.)
By the beginning of 2012, the same paranoia that had led NBC to promote Curry was now prompting conversations about demoting her. And so in February, Burke effectively initiated the first phase of Bell’s operation: he told Lauer about the plot to replace Curry with Guthrie, whose playful, sometimes bashful personality many of NBC’s top executives found appealing. She had more than held her own with Lauer whenever Curry was away, unlike Natalie Morales, her co-host in the 9 a.m. hour, who, executives believed, didn’t have the personality to carry the show.
Lauer, who was genuinely thinking about leaving “Today,” had wanted to put off his contract talks until the fall. Burke urged him to make up his mind by April so that, if he stayed, the network could introduce a new co-host in June, shortly before the Summer Olympics, NBC’s highest-rated weeks of the year. Lauer would later say that Burke told him Curry was going to be relieved of her post regardless of what he did. But that defies morning-television logic: NBC couldn’t afford to lose both anchors in the same year. According to a source with direct knowledge of the conversation, Burke told Lauer, “We need to sign you so we can do Ann.” Burke, who had to be keenly aware of Lauer’s discomfort with Curry, was basically scratching her off his list of reservations. (As a top NBC executive said to me after the fact, “Matt’s decision guided everything else.”) Burke even offered Lauer a signing bonus of several million dollars, according to the same person, to decide swiftly.
Do Ann? Do Ann? Good Lord, it sounds like a mob hit.
Curry was sad after signing off, but also enraged. When critics blamed a lack of chemistry for her departure, she dismissed it to friends it as a euphemism for something else. “ ‘Chemistry,’ in television history, generally means the man does not want to work with the woman,” Curry was known to have remarked. “It’s an excuse generally used by men in positions of power to say, ‘The woman doesn’t work.’ ”
The ratings for the first episode of “Today” without her revealed that her fans had fled en masse. NBC executives expected the numbers to normalize after the Olympics, but there was only a downward spiral. On particularly bad days “Good Morning America” beat “Today” by a million viewers. Some of this was attributed to Curry’s fans exacting revenge. She was overwhelmed by condolences. “It feels like I died,” she told colleagues afterward, “and I’ve seen my own wake.”
I guess it was something of a hit. The whole story is worth the read. If those producers wanted salacious, they could’ve kept those cameras rolling behind the scenes.