Spin Cycle

03.11.13

Matt Lauer’s Bruising Year After Ann Curry’s Ouster Devastated the ‘Today’ Show

The Today host tells Howard Kurtz that NBC mishandled Ann Curry’s ouster and describes how the network is rebuilding the show. Plus, his secret talks with Katie Couric.

One day last fall, Matt Lauer walked out of his 30 Rock office and took the elevator to the 51st floor to see Steve Burke, the chief executive of NBC Universal.

Lauer was feeling down. Week after week, he was getting pummeled by the press for the sinking fortunes of the Today show. The veteran host was being blamed for the messy departure of Ann Curry and the downward ratings spiral of what had been the iconic program in morning television.

“If you think the show’s better off without me, let me know, and I’ll get out of the way,” Burke recalls Lauer saying.

Burke wouldn’t hear of it. “You’re the best person who’s ever done this,” he said. “We’ll get through this.”

The conversation reflected the depth of the damage sustained by one of television’s most lucrative franchises, which is still struggling to recover as Lauer tries to recast it as warmer, more positive, and less sensational.

“It was a hard time for everybody,” Lauer tells me over a sandwich at his desk, breaking a self-imposed silence about the show’s implosion. “We were getting kicked around a lot. Some of it was self-inflicted and perhaps deserved.”

Self-inflicted? Lauer invokes the way that Curry was abruptly booted from the program last June and replaced by Savannah Guthrie.

“I don’t think the show and the network handled the transition well. You don’t have to be Einstein to know that,” says Lauer.

“It clearly did not help us. We were seen as a family, and we didn’t handle a family matter well.”

That is an understatement. Sources familiar with the process say that Lauer repeatedly tried to convince his bosses to slow things down and give Curry more time before she was pushed into a reduced role.

“When Matt was informed that we had made this decision, his good counsel was to go slow, to take care of Ann, and to do the right things,” says Steve Capus, who stepped down last month as NBC News president. “He was quietly and publicly a supporter of Ann’s throughout the entire process. It is unfair that Matt has shouldered an undue amount of blame for a decision he disagreed with.”

At the outset, though, Lauer would have preferred to anchor with someone else. Before Curry was formally promoted to co-host in 2011, Lauer quietly reached out to an old friend. He asked Katie Couric if she would be willing to return to Today, where they had ruled the time period for nearly a decade. 

Video screenshot

Matt and Ann: best friends forever.

Couric was receptive to the idea. She was shopping a syndicated show, and she and Lauer were talking about doing the show together. Their plan was to sell the daytime program to NBC and feature Couric on Today during the year and a half until the show could get on the air and Lauer would be contractually free to join her. Couric could be a Today co-host, perhaps as part of a troika with Curry, who had already been offered the job. NBC executives debated the plan, but Burke rejected it after concluding that the syndicated show would be too expensive to produce. Couric teamed up with ABC instead.

With all that in the rearview mirror, Lauer is now pouring his energy into creating a new kind of Today show. Whatever scars the 55-year-old journalist has accumulated, he projects a natural resilience: “I’m not going to whine or get depressed. Who’s going to feel sorry for me? Nobody.”

Besides, he says, “I am the luckiest guy I know.”

He looks trim in a crisp white shirt and tightly knotted tie after one of his regular afternoon workouts. His spacious corner office is filled with the framed photos of media success: Lauer with Hillary Clinton. Lauer with George W. Bush. Lauer with the Rolling Stones. He is the unquestioned star, the box-office draw, the guy who lands the biggest interviews.

But Lauer is also learning the downside of fame. For 16 years, Today was the undisputed champion of morning television, racking up a remarkable streak that may never be equaled. Now, with ABC’s Good Morning America having taken over the top spot, knife-wielding critics are asking how Lauer’s show could have fallen so far so fast.

“In some ways being No. 2 in the ratings is a real shot in the arm, a kick in the pants,” Lauer says. “It makes you hungrier ... I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have a fire lit under your ass.”

If that’s the case, Lauer is feeling the heat, so much so that he has stopped reading much of what is written about him.

When New York’s Daily News recently ran an unfounded gossip item quoting an unnamed former NBC executive as saying that “replacing Matt Lauer is now seriously on the table,” Burke called Lauer and told him the story was “ridiculous.”

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Ann Curry broke down when she announced her departure from ‘Today.’

Such sources “clearly don’t know what’s inside my head,” Burke tells me. “It’s all speculation and gossip. It’s hurtful at some level but it is what it is. The show went through a rough patch after the Ann Curry/Savannah Guthrie change. Our job is to make sure the show is as good as it can possibly be.”

Burke’s larger job is to kick-start a network that dropped to fifth place in prime time, behind Univision, in the February sweeps. Today had always been a ratings anchor when NBC’s entertainment lineup hit rocky waters.

Lauer’s position is secure, but Good Morning America, with Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos, has the hot hand. For the week of February 25, soon after Roberts’s return from a bone-marrow transplant, GMA drew 5.8 million viewers, compared with 4.8 million for Today and 2.9 million for CBS This Morning with Charlie Rose, Norah O’Donnell, and Gayle King, which has won praise from critics.

Today trailed GMA by more than 200,000 in the 25–54 demo, but has often been virtually tied or slightly ahead among that coveted group over the last two months.

In its drive to close the gap, Today is working to forge a new identity under a hands-on executive producer, Don Nash. Lauer makes clear that he was not happy with the content of the program as recently as six months ago.

“The show got a little dour and depressing and dark,” he says.

What he means is that Today, like GMA, regularly covered lurid crimes and celebrity scandals, especially at 7:30, after the first half hour of news.

Lauer recalls picking up his kids from school one Friday afternoon and having a mother ask him how an interview went that morning. She wanted to watch, but when a story about a brutal murder came on, the woman said, “I had to turn it off because I didn’t want my kids to see it.”

Lauer argued against those stories, feeling that they left him with little to say afterward beyond an expression of sympathy for the victims. “I’ll be perfectly blunt: I was losing a lot of those battles,” he tells me. “We were driving a certain kind of viewer away.”

The debates over the degree of tabloid fare took place day after day. Some executives “felt those things rated well,” Lauer says. “Even if they popped in the ratings in the short term, they did some damage in terms of trust with our viewers. We got drunk on it.”

For Lauer, a crystallizing moment occurred as Today enjoyed its usual ratings bump during the London Olympics. He wrote Nash a note saying that viewers were less interested in the individual sports than in wanting to root for someone and feel patriotic.

Now, Lauer tells me, “we want people to feel good about a portion of their morning, and we got away from that.”

“It’s a much more positive show, a more uplifting show. Much of the darkness is gone, by design.” While Today will always cover hard-news developments, however tragic, says Lauer, “we’re choosing more inspiring stories.”

These days, the second half hour includes everything from a probe of defective used cars to surfers riding ever-bigger waves, from a Lauer chat with Martha Stewart about her legal dispute with retailers to pumping up the Bible series on the NBC-owned History Channel. The only piece about an attempted murder last week was on the fuss over a viral video that staged such an incident.

But viewers watch morning television for more than story selection. They come to feel attached to the ensemble that is joining them at the breakfast hour. And every time the familiar Today theme song plays, they see that the woman who was part of the program for 15 years—as a globe-trotting correspondent, as news anchor, and eventually as co-host—is no longer sitting to Lauer’s right.

Lauer learned early last year that Curry was hanging by a thread, because her status loomed as a factor in his own decision on whether to stay with the program.

He was well treated, the money was great, but the early-morning grind was wearing on him. Perhaps it was time to move on. Lauer got permission during a contractual window to talk to ABC, CBS, and HBO.

Senior NBC executives were operating under the assumption that Lauer would probably quit. This was not long after Meredith Vieira had left the co-host’s job six months early, and Curry—who had been contractually guaranteed Vieira’s job—was about to be eased out. They were, to say the least, rather nervous.

In his discussions with the NBC brass, Lauer was informed that management had all but finalized a decision to replace Curry, regardless of whether he stayed on. He told Capus that it was a terrible idea to risk losing both hosts and destabilize the show.

Lauer’s message was that NBC was stuck with management’s decision to promote Curry, and that they could produce their way around her strengths and weaknesses. But he was told the decision was above his pay grade.

In the end, Lauer could not leave the program that had boosted him to media stardom. In April, he signed a multiyear deal that guaranteed him around $20 million a year. “You’re going to be sticking around with us,” Curry told him on the air. The question was how much longer she would be.

Lauer had privately acknowledged the obvious, that there were problems with his on-air partner. They simply lacked the chemistry that he had enjoyed with Couric and Vieira. He tried hard to make the morning banter work with Curry, to the point that some colleagues told him to stop faking it.

As the network edged closer to moving against Curry, Lauer grew concerned about the potential fallout. He delivered a blunt message at a meeting with Capus, Jim Bell, then Today’s executive producer, and Burke, the Comcast executive who had taken over NBC when his company bought the network. This, he said, was “a disaster waiting to happen.”

Capus and Lauer maintained that they needed to take their time and make sure Curry was comfortable with the change. Others in the room were unmoved. This will be a one-week story, they said, and quickly blow over.

Lauer insisted that the story would go on and on. An ugly divorce would rupture the camaraderie they had presented to the country each morning.

But the network bosses had a plan. We’ll present it as Ann’s idea, they said. She wants to return to her first love, which is reporting. The meeting broke up without a final decision.

The executives felt they had little choice. They were sitting on research showing that viewers had not warmed to Curry and felt she had no rapport with Lauer. They feared a downward slide if they kept her in the chair.

Lauer and Curry had a candid talk over lunch at the Four Seasons. He acknowledged she hadn’t been his first choice for co-host, but said that was in the past. Curry said that both Lauer and the show would take a hit if she was thrown overboard, and he agreed. Lauer suggested that she try to get a meeting with Burke and resolve the situation. He also advised Curry, who didn’t employ an agent, to hire one quickly. 

At a second meeting with the NBC executives, Lauer conveyed that Curry was unhappy with the situation. He and Capus argued again for slowing down the process, rather than rushing to dump Curry before NBC’s coverage of the London Olympics got under way. But Bell, who was running both Today and the Olympics coverage—and is now in charge of future Olympics—pushed to wrap things up before the summer games began. Bell’s argument was that Curry was a known quantity and the situation wasn’t going to get better, no matter how long they waited.

Bell is a tall and imposing former college football player, but as the show’s producer he didn’t have the clout to override the star anchor and news-division chief. Steve Burke did, and he concluded that the time had come.

By now Curry had retained Washington lawyer Robert Barnett, who began negotiating a new deal for her. Capus devised a plan for Curry to be slowly phased out and Guthrie slowly phased in, with both women appearing at the Olympics. But top management rejected the proposal. GMA had snapped the Today ratings streak a couple of times in April, and the NBC bosses were under tremendous pressure to right the ship.

In June, with Curry feeling hurt by leaked reports that she might be replaced, things came to a head. It was a painful moment for her; co-hosting Today had always been Curry’s dream job.

Capus and Bell had been talking to her about a new role—anchor-at-large and roving correspondent—that would still pay her millions of dollars. The pitch was that she was happiest when visiting, say, a Syrian refugee camp and looked miserable baking a cake with Martha Stewart. Curry finally agreed to the change.

On the morning of June 28, everything was carefully choreographed for Curry’s announcement. She showed her script to Capus 45 minutes before the segment. What she would say, and what Lauer and Al Roker and Natalie Morales would say in response, had been planned in advance.

But when the moment came for Curry to tell viewers she was leaving after just one year in the chair, her voice was strained and breaking. She started wiping away tears.

“Matt and I and everyone who sits on this couch, we often call ourselves a family,” Curry began. Her demeanor made clear how unhappy she was. “For all of you who saw me as a groundbreaker, I’m sorry I couldn’t carry the ball over the finish line, but man, I did try.”

Lauer offered some words of praise, but when he leaned over to kiss her, Curry did not turn and he wound up awkwardly bussing the side of her hair. The segment had a funereal air.

No one remembered Curry’s words, which were overwhelmed by her crying. Some senior NBC executives were furious, feeling that Curry had exacerbated an admittedly bad situation.

Curry made no secret of her distress. She told USA Today that she was “deeply sad” at the turn of events and that she should have been given more time to prove herself.

People sympathetic to Curry say she simply lost control of her emotions. But there is lingering resentment in the executive suites at 30 Rock, although that view is not unanimous. “The notion that Ann somehow exacerbated the situation last summer truly isn’t accurate and isn’t the belief of the people at NBC News,” a top official says.

Curry had been right about one thing: many viewers blamed Lauer for the breakup. As Capus later told him, “You’re taking the hit over something that you opposed.”

People would stop Lauer on the street and complain about Curry’s banishment. While Lauer was riding in a London elevator at the Olympics, an American woman got on, saw him and said: “I hate what you’ve done. I will never watch you again.” Such incidents left him shaken.

All but lost in the acrimony was NBC’s low-key announcement of Curry’s replacement. Guthrie is a talented lawyer who had co-hosted an MSNBC talk show with Chuck Todd. But NBC never gave Guthrie a proper launch, mindful of the 1990 debacle when viewers blamed Deborah Norville for pushing out the older but beloved Jane Pauley.

Lauer says Guthrie’s introduction had to be “subtle” because “we were in an awkward time. It was unfortunate for Savannah because she got the job of a lifetime under unusual circumstances through no fault of her own.”

These days he is trying to keep things in perspective, even taking a vacation with his wife and three kids in the middle of the February sweeps. Lauer recalls how he grew up watching Today and how his grandmother brought him to the ice-skating rink at Rockefeller Center, where he could not imagine working.

When Lauer was in his 20s, he was canceled or fired from talk shows four times in a row, in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Boston. He thought about getting out of the business, but decided to stick it out.

In reflecting on the Today stories he most enjoys, Lauer delights in the tale of Adam Greenberg, a baseball player who was hit in the head on the first pitch of his first appearance in 2005 and never returned. After an online petition last year, the Florida Marlins gave him one at-bat, and while Greenberg struck out on three pitches, he was happy when Lauer interviewed him the next day.

“It was about getting back up when you’re knocked down,” says Lauer, who is clearly ready for more at-bats.