It’s been a turkey of a year for Matt Lauer.
Even the most magisterial of duties—presiding for NBC over the Thanksgiving Day Parade—has brought out the knives of those who would carve him up.
He has been trampled on Twitter for a minor flub during the holiday telecast—a clear sign that Lauer is having a rough season since Today tumbled from its perch of ratings supremacy.
It’s also absurdly unfair.
“Sadly,” NBC News President Steve Capus tells me, “this is the era in which we live: Venomous tweets somehow threaten to drown out all of those who praised Matt for his coverage.
“The Twitter snarkiness is an unfortunate result of misdirected anger that’s been unfairly placed on Matt. There has also been a lot of mean-spirited piling-on, which has been manufactured by many anonymous sources.”
Only 10 months ago, Lauer was seen as the savior of the Today show. After many months of deliberation about sticking with the morning grind, he signed a new contract worth $25 million, announcing “this is my family.”
But then the family became dysfunctional. Ann Curry, a globe-trotting reporter, was dumped in June after only a year as the program’s co-host. Her tearful goodbye, before Savannah Guthrie took her seat, sealed the drawn-out and messy television divorce.
Many viewers blamed Lauer, despite the fact that he had nothing to do with the decision. Executive producer Jim Bell publicly took the responsibility.
“The whole Ann transition really hurt us,” an NBC executive says. Lauer “was one of the few people who fought to do the transition in a different way—to take our time with it and not do it so rushed right before the Olympics. He wanted to do right by her, and we really didn’t.”
Capus confirms that “Matt had nothing to do with Ann’s reassignment. He does not make those types of decisions. There has been an incredible amount of misplaced blame on Matt.”
He adds: “If Matt is to blame for the ratings slippage then, is he the only one who gets credit for the two months of steady ratings gains we’ve enjoyed? It’s always a team effort. As I have said repeatedly, he is one of, if not the best, morning show hosts in the history of that genre. We are lucky to have him.”
The Thanksgiving flap underscored the extent to which Lauer has become a target. And for what? The veteran host announced Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara singing the George Gershwin song ’SWonderful as Ess Wonderful. And the snark artists reacted as if he had introduced Obama as Osama.
The New York Post, which loves to take shots at NBC, played up such anti-Lauer tweets as: “Matt Lauer should get a lifetime-achievement award for saying ridiculous things with deadpan, absolute sincerity. Way to go Matt.”
“Lauer is now seen as a bully by some, especially women, I think, and people are out to tear him down in any way they can.”
Another: “Can’t decide if it’s Matt Lauer that I hate or just the mindless blather that comes out of his face all of the time.” Some even took shots at his thinning hair.
Come on—how hard is it to find a few cranks on the Twitter?
There are even unfounded rumors in the press. London’s Daily Mail shamelessly trumpeted that Lauer is “reportedly” about to get the boot. The source? A report in the National Enquirer that “weatherman Al Roker is plotting to push the 54-year-old TV veteran out of his anchor chair.”
Back in 2009, during a period when Good Morning America was closing the ratings gap, Lauer told me that “it’s an awful feeling” to watch the numbers slip. He said he and his colleagues began studying the ABC program but realized that “you can’t start mimicking someone else.”
Lauer was there for virtually all of Today’s incredible 16-year run as the No. 1 morning show, and his star kept burning brighter. A shirtless photo in Us Weekly generated plenty of buzz.
Bell is becoming NBC’s top Olympics czar, having supervised coverage of the highly successful London Games. Since Today lost the ratings lead to GMA, former Nightly News producer Alexandra Wallace was tapped to oversee the morning show, with Today veteran Don Nash taking Bell’s title.
“We have made some key changes, including the new management team,” Capus says, adding: “We love our new on-air team.”
But are these changes enough—and can Lauer help mount a comeback?
David Zurawik, who covers television for the Baltimore Sun, calls the criticism of Lauer “absolutely out of proportion.” But, he says, “there seems to be a special kind of rather widespread enmity toward him right now, and I think that is connected to his perceived role in Ann Curry’s firing and all that has followed with Today’s loss of ratings and now change in leadership.
“NBC News has let Lauer, like Brian Williams at Nightly News, get too much power. That’s easy to do with the faces of top-rated shows, but Lauer is now seen as a bully by some, especially women, I think, and people are out to tear him down in any way they can.”
Eric Deggans, media critic for the Tampa Bay Times, says he expected that Guthrie “would be seen as the hated replacement, in the same way Deborah Norville was vilified when she replaced Jane Pauley many years earlier. But it seems that Matt Lauer has become the new Norville, accused of forcing out Curry and blamed for the show’s inability to blunt Good Morning America’s newfound momentum.”
Still, says Deggans, “most people I’ve talked to in the business still see Lauer as the most talented morning anchor in the business; I’ve often called him TV’s most underrated interviewer.”
NBC executives note there were plenty of positive Thanksgiving tweets as well. One viewer wrote, “@MLauer has interviewed royalty, hosted Olympics and sat down with Vladimir Putin. He mispronounced a show tune. Calm down. ’S no big deal.” Said another: “I’m thankful @MLauer has resisted the urge to get a hairpiece. Rock that dome, fine sir.”
The larger problem is that the Today formula seems a bit tired. GMA, even with Robin Roberts recuperating from surgery, has gotten a jolt of energy from Josh Elliott and Lara Spencer, and from its emphasis on lighter and tabloid-style fare (not exactly neglected by Today, either).
It’s not like Today’s ratings have collapsed. For the week of Nov. 5, GMA averaged 5.49 million viewers and Today 5.18 million. The revamped CBS This Morning, with Charlie Rose, Norah O’Donnell, and Gayle King, has been making modest gains and averaged 2.95 million.
If Lauer got the credit for the decade and a half on top, obviously he has to shoulder some of the blame for the decline. Today has always promoted itself as a family, which made the shabby treatment of Curry all the more off-putting to viewers. Savannah Guthrie is a smart and talented replacement, but it’s awfully hard to step into that kind of volatile situation.
Lauer isn’t going anywhere. He has the same broadcasting skills he had before Today slipped from the top spot. But in this Thanksgiving season, his detractors are enjoying kicking the stuffing out of him.