Smell of Napalm

04.03.14

The Morning Show ‘Hunger Games’

ABC is furious that Josh Elliott has walked out to join NBC Sports. Many insiders believe a deal with the Today show is behind the dramatic switch.

For all the happy talk, gleaming smiles, and warm vibes of familial affection, the network morning shows--specifically NBC’s Today and ABC’s Good Morning America—are savagely Darwinian behind the cameras.

The abrupt departure this week of GMA newsreader Josh Elliott for NBC Sports is a case in point, revealing the rich irony that  trash-talking and personal invective are a behind-the-scenes staple of the network news divisions' traditionally friendliest, mushiest programming. Elliott's move has inspired some network spinners to argue that his sudden disappearance will throw a monkey wrench into GMA’s 19-month juggernaut at No.1—and has encouraged others to argue, conversely, that he will, in due course, join a fierce and wounding rivalry at 30 Rock to succeed Matt Lauer as Today’s reigning alpha male.

That is only the latest arena in which the high-stakes morning-show wars are being fought—the prize being dominant ratings and potentially billions of dollars in advertising revenue over the next several years.

“The bigger intrigue will be at NBC,” predicts a network news insider. “It will be very interesting to see the Hunger Games it sets off there.”

“Boy, are people angry at Josh Elliott at ABC!”

The insider—who, like every other network employee, including on-air personalities, declined to be identified in this story due to the extreme sensitivity of the subject—noted that Elliott will likely become yet another competitor in an ambitious crowd that includes Todayshow teammates Willie Geist, co-host of the 9 o’clock hour, and The Voice emcee Carson Daly, who joined Today last year as its social media correspondent, along with Meet the Press moderator David Gregory,  among others, should Lauer decide not to re-up when his current contract runs out in 2015.

The official NBC spin is that the 42-year-old Elliott, whom ABC News President Ben Sherwood  plucked from relative obscurity at ESPN’s SportsCenter program three years ago, is simply returning to his roots in sports, much like meteorologist  Sam Champion who left GMA last December for a big title and his own show on The Weather Channel.

Hardly anybody believes that, however.

While the non-compete clause in Elliott’s ABC contract forbids him from appearing on Today and other NBC News programming for the next six months, his last-minute decision Sunday night to turn down a $5 million offer from ABC—more than three times his $1.2 million GMA salary—in order to accept a $4 million base salary from NBC Sports (plus a side agreement for Elliott’s production company worth something under $1 million) makes no sense unless the Today show is at the center of it.

“This is a Today show deal,” says an NBC-er, reflecting the near-universal view at the network. “If you look at this from his point of view, he wouldn’t leave the No. 1 morning show where he could be the heir apparent [to GMA host George Stephanopoulos, who has been in the job five years] to go do the Kentucky Derby once a year and the Olympics every two years. Quite clearly, NBC Sports is a way in the door.”

The Josh Elliott camp, of course, would argue somewhat differently, noting that his expected prominent role on NBC’s Sunday Night Football, for instance, gives him entrée to a huge television audience much bigger than the 5 or 6 million viewers who watch Today and GMA. (The historically third-place CBS This Morning gets around 3 million viewers these days.) Elliott also expects to be a major player across all of the sports properties owned by the cable giant Comcast, NBC Universal’s parent company, and his production deal also potentially covers entertainment programming. “This is a real job; Josh doesn’t need to be on Today and there’s no pressure like the other guys have” to compete for Lauer’s as-yet occupied perch, says a person familiar with Elliott’s NBC deal.

It’s unclear whether the 56-year-old Lauer—who has been a regular on Today for 20 years, and for the past 17 the male lead—intends to stay beyond next year, although NBC News President Deborah Turness has repeatedly made clear that “we want him in that job for a long time to come” and “there is nobody I would rather have in the anchor chair than Matt.”  Although he has periodically struck colleagues as ambivalent about sticking around, Lauer lately has seemed energized and invested; at last December’s NBC News holiday party in the seasonally tricked-out 30 Rock cafeteria, Lauer arrived early and stayed late, working the crowd of invited trade journalists (for whom the Today star has little love) like a candidate for county commissioner.

Lauer, who reportedly is paid $25 million a year, took a PR beating after many female viewers and much media coverage blamed him for the June 2012 ouster after only a year in the chair of his co-host Ann Curry, who burst into tears during her farewell appearance and gave Lauer the cold shoulder. The two decidedly lacked chemistry on camera, a reality that was blamed for Today’s ratings slide after 16 years at the summit—a toboggan ride that had already begun before Curry was tossed out of the sled in favor of the younger, chirpier Savannah Guthrie.

 “Matt was genuinely hurt by all the Ann Curry fallout,” says the network news insider.  Lauer has consistently denied  any role in Curry’s defenestration. “The viewers who didn’t switch to GMA and stayed with Today have forgiven him,” this person adds, noting that the hard-working Lauer manages to keep his healthy ego in check and is generally well-liked by his colleagues. 

The same probably cannot be said for Elliott, whose time at GMA was marred by gossipy items in the New York Post’s Page Six column  and elsewhere describing him  as “high-maintenance” and a “diva” who “lashes out” at coworkers. The unflattering descriptions of Elliott’s behavior—most likely exaggerated—were less significant than the apparent willingness of colleagues to drop a dime on him and tell tales out of school.

The manner of his departure didn’t help, and it’s telling that Elliott didn’t receive the sort of tear-streaked on-air sendoff accorded Sam Champion (Elliott himself broke down at the anchor desk during Champion’s final show) and that the mere fact of his existence was promptly scrubbed  from ABC News’s web site. Without Elliott on the set this morning, GMA did get around to airing a goodbye compilation video. Equally revealing: he was immediately replaced as news anchor by Amy Robach, and two days later Live With Kelly and Michael co-host Michael Strahan, the gap-toothed former New York Giants defensive end, announced that he will also be joining the GMA team while remaining on the syndicated morning show.

“Boy, are people angry at Josh Elliott at ABC!” says a morning show insider.  “People are really upset with him; they say he was not a professional, not a gentleman.”

Sherwood, who last week was promoted from news division chief to the presidency of Disney/ABC Television, was especially miffed at his one-time protégé. On Sunday, as weeks of negotiations came to a head, he refused Elliott’s request of a face-to-face meeting, telling the newsreader’s representatives that unless Elliott was prepared to discuss remaining at ABC, such a meeting would be a waste of time. The Elliott camp argues, however, that he still might have decided to stay, depending on what Sherwood had to say.

According to knowledgeable sources, Elliott and his representative, Olivia Metzger of the Creative Artist Agency, were demanding $8 million with a bump up to $10 million to sign another deal with ABC. It was an outlandish hope, according to ABC insiders, but possibly reasonable if one believes that Elliott had a measurable impact on GMA’s rise in the ratings.

What’s more, Elliott’s demands came in the context of  GMA co-host Robin Roberts re-upping in December for a new contract reported to be worth as much as $20 million a year  (but is probably worth closer to $16 million)—a circumstance that has raised the expectations of every one of GMA’s on-air talents and their acquisitive agents. Stephanopoulos, for one, will likely benefit from Roberts’s good fortune when his current contract ends in December.

As for Elliott, “Coming here was the best decision for me, but it was a decision that was tough to make,” he said Wednesday during a conference call with the media. “It was bittersweet. It was made with a degree of melancholy and it was made with a heavy heart.”

No doubt he’ll get over it.