Morning TV Wars: 15 Revelations From Brian Stelter’s ‘Top of the Morning’
The New York Times might have trashed its own Brian Stelter’s book on the morning TV wars, but from ‘Operation Bambi’ to Stephanopoulos’s Italian bed, there are still plenty of revelations to be had.
Things are going to get awkward at the water cooler after The New York Times panned its own staff reporter Brian Stelter’s book, Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV, all about the early-morning TV wars between NBC’s Today show, ABC’s Good Morning America, and CBS This Morning. Perhaps the criticism was warranted—Stelter’s breezy account is indeed sprinkled with “a little overblown prose, some of it just plain silly,” as former Dallas Morning News television critic Ed Bark wrote in the Times review. But the book does offer some intriguing revelations, especially in NBC’s debacle over demoting Ann Curry as co-host of the Today show. From “Operation Bambi” to George Stephanopoulos’s Italian neoclassical bed, here are the 15 juiciest bits from the exposé.
Ann Curry was born in Guam and went to the University of Oregon, where Animal House was filmed—Curry’s husband, Brian Ross (not the ABC News reporter), can (barely) be seen in one of the movie’s frat-party scenes.
Curry wanted Tom Brokaw’s job on NBC Nightly News, but when Brian Williams got it, Curry called then-NBC News president Andrew Lack at home to tell him she was unhappy about it. A colleague of Curry’s said, “The dirty little secret about Ann is that she is so fucking ambitious.”
Curry then moved on to the Today show, where she was news anchor. Co-hosts Matt Lauer, Katie Couric, news anchor Curry, and weatherman Al Roker were “America’s first family.” But producers said Couric thought Curry was fake, and the two had a tense rivalry. Curry jockeyed to fill in for Couric every time she was away.
“I Love Him Already”
When Couric let NBC know that she’d be leaving, president and CEO of NBC Universal Jeff Zucker courted The View’s Meredith Vieira as the replacement. When Lauer invited Vieira to dinner at his Park Avenue apartment, she wore a white T-shirt, black jacket, and jeans, and worried about being underdressed. When she saw Lauer wearing jeans and a sweater, she thought, I love him already. When Curry was told she was passed over, she put an “out” clause in her next contract that allowed her to leave the network immediately if she was passed over again.
“I Can’t Believe I Am Sitting Next to This Woman”
When Matt Lauer was told Curry was to be his co-host, he said, “OK, but …” He thought their on-air chemistry was lacking. On the first day that Curry took over, she blurted out on air, “I knew I should have worn deodorant today, this is hard today!” Lauer groaned, “Thanks for sharing that.” One day not long after, Lauer told a production assistant: “I can’t believe I am sitting next to this woman.” A staffer said, “At some point, Matt just kind of gave up.”
Rumors began that Lauer was leaving, but he only had serious discussions with ABC. Lauer was the biggest star in morning television, reportedly earning $25 million a year, and was the show’s most familiar face. So when his performance suffered due to the lack of chemistry with Curry, he threatened to leave. Today show executive producer Jim Bell needed to fix the problem, and to get rid of Curry as fast as possible. Bell called his campaign to get rid of Curry “Operation Bambi,” and Stelter waxes poetic on the name, saying that it “may have been far less important in the general sweep of history, but it was no less earnest an endeavor than the Nazis’ Operation Sea Lion or America’s Operation Desert Storm.”
Bell one day called staffers into his office to chuckle at a verbal gaffe that Curry made. And when one day Curry wore a bright-yellow dress, staffers in the control room Photoshopped a picture of Big Bird next to Curry that read, “Who wore it best?” Tape reviews are part of the job for executive producers to iron out problems with the anchor, but “one of her allies” said Curry was not getting feedback from Jim Bell. Curry said she felt tortured by Bell’s campaign.
“While morning TV is created mostly for women, it is, even at this late date, quite obviously managed mostly by men—men who like to think in terms of war, sabotage, and, well, embarrassing James Bond-y names for stuff they do in the office.”
Tired All the Time
“Not to put too fine a point on it, when you’re dealing with a lot of rich folks whose alarm clocks go off at three thirty in the morning day after day, some crazy shit is going to go down. For example, Operation Bambi.”
When Curry was finally canned, she gave a tearful farewell on the show—what NBC dreaded. The public blamed Lauer, the star the executives most needed to protect. Curry’s fans exacted revenge, switching channels the next day as Savannah Guthrie took over Curry’s role. They switched to ABC’s Good Morning America.
Watch Ann Curry's emotional 'Today Show' goodbye.
The Rise of GMA
Today had beat out ABC’s Good Morning America in ratings every week for 852 weeks, a fabled streak stretching back to 1995. But shortly before Curry left, GMA had ended that streak, and when Curry was ousted GMA grew even stronger. The Robin Roberts–George Stephanopoulos era began in 2009, and centered on fluff.
Italian Neoclassical Bed
Stelter closely described Stephanopoulos's Upper East Side apartment and his early-morning routine. He says the host slept in a “rather fabulous Italian neoclassical bed,” woke up at 2:35 a.m. every workday, and would meditate cross-legged for 10 minutes. Stephanopoulos reportedly makes more than $5 million a year.
Thrown into the mix was MSNBC’s Morning Joe, which made Lauer fume every time people talked about a guest they had seen on Morning Joe without realizing that the same guest had been on Today. Today show Executive Producer Jim Bell once told Morning Joe counterpart Chris Licht, "You're the most talked-about show that no one watches." Licht responded, “You're the most watched show that no one talks about.”
CBS, long in third place in the morning wars, wanted to be like Morning Joe. It lured Licht to create the new CBS This Morning in 2012, and asked interviewer Charlie Rose to co-host. Rose was determined to keep his legendary nightly program as well as anchor the CBS show, and all his friends, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, thought he couldn’t possibly do it. “Do you think I can beat Matt Lauer?” he asked Stelter. Today, CBS's morning show remains third in ratings.
Stephanopoulos Is King
By January 2013, Lauer had lost his title as the most-liked man on morning TV. That title now belongs to Stephanopoulos.
Off the Record
ABC “scrubbed a few curse words” but largely allowed every quote to be used. NBC kept every Jim Bell quote during Stelter’s control-room visits off the record, and even restricted descriptions of his body language. Lauer did not agree to be interviewed, and NBC is said to have prevented Curry from being interviewed after she was ousted.