Behind the ‘Today’ Show’s Latest Meltdown
And you thought Washington, D.C., was dysfunctional?
Consider the chaos at NBC News and its once-untouchable morning show, Today, which is limping to the end of its 63rd year amid backbiting, talent anxiety, lurid headlines, and—for the past two years—second-place ratings that have cost the network news division tens of millions of dollars in advertising revenue.
The latest embarrassment—Monday night’s very public dismissal of NBC News senior vice president and Today show brand general manager Jamie Horowitz after just 10 weeks on the job—amounts to another black eye for the venerable program. Normally, the departure of an unknown broadcast executive would be relegated to the trade journals and barely make a dent in public awareness. But because of Today’s long-held centrality in the popular culture and its recent history of violent personnel changes, Horowitz’s removal is receiving dead-movie-star coverage in outlets ranging from Us Weekly to Entertainment Tonight, while going viral on social media.
The result is a disconcerting disconnect: A viewer in Topeka, Kansas, wondering just how insincere is the happy talk among Today’s grinning anchors, is apt know as much about the behind-the scenes melodrama as your average Manhattan media junkie.
In 2012, Today ended 16 years of ratings dominance with the clumsy sacking of Ann Curry and press reports blaming Curry’s co-anchor Matt Lauer for her tearful, cringe-worthy on-camera exit. Formerly loyal viewers, soured on the show’s forced and seemingly phony bonhomie, subsequently switched in droves to ABC’s Good Morning America, the new and still-reigning king of morning television.
“It’s just complete disarray over at Today right now,” said a veteran NBC executive who, like almost everyone else quoted in this story, spoke on the condition of not being identified. “The entire staff is just at a loss to understand what’s going on. Everybody wants to know what’s happening and who’s in charge.”
NBC News President Deborah Turness—with the active involvement of her boss, Patricia Fili-Krushel, chairman of the NBC Universal News Group, which includes MSNBC and CNBC—had recruited Horowitz from his top programming perch at Disney-owned ESPN to implement change and help restore the troubled Today program to the morning-show throne.
“He was seen as somebody who would actually shake up a plodding Today show bureaucracy that continues to take on water,” said an NBC News insider. That Horowitz, for whatever reason, never got the chance “is disastrous for the entire news division, and especially embarrassing for Pat Fili, who brought him over because of this NBC-Disney connection.” (Fili-Krushel, a favorite of NBC Universal Chairman Steve Burke, a close associate of Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, had spent nearly decade in the 1990s as an executive at ABC Television, where she had worked under Burke’s late father, ABC President Daniel Burke.)
“The Comcast people are cable people, and they don’t look at the downturn in the ratings at MSNBC and CNBC, because they get 75 percent of their revenue from cable subscriptions,” the NBC News insider continued. “But at NBC News, their first, second, and third concern is the Today show. That’s what matters to them most, just as it mattered most to the last regime, and to NBC executives for 50 years. At the end of the day, the Today show is what Pat Fili and Deborah Turness will be judged by.”
In order to secure Horowitz’s services, Turness and Fili-Krushel had to engage in something of a hostage negotiation, agreeing let MSNBC producer Bill Wolff out of his contract and jump to Disney-owned ABC’s The View, in return for ABC’s corporate sibling, ESPN, letting Horowitz out of his contract. In a staff memo celebrating the deal, Turness called Horowitz “an incredibly talented producer and executive,” “a visionary leader,” and “a creative thinker.”
Apparently he was a little too visionary and creative, while displaying an astonishing absence of tact and political finesse in his dealings with big-egoed network news stars. When Horowitz conducted a “listening tour” of Today’s anchors, producers, and support staff—reportedly posing such questions as “If this were Survivor, who would you vote off the island?”—he was received by the entrenched Today talent and production staff in much the same way that the citizens of Atlanta must have greeted General Sherman.
“He was telling everyone to their faces what they wanted to hear and saying something very different behind their backs,” said an NBC News type with direct knowledge of the situation. “Everyone had a different impression of what was happening. And he was frankly talking shit about everyone from Pat Fili to Deborah Turness to Matt Lauer—saying this to people he thought he was friends with. And it all came home to roost. It’s nuts, totally nuts.”
In the end, a parade of Today show stalwarts, everyone from Lauer to lowly segment producers, raised objections with Turness about Horowitz’s behavior. The hiring mistake (as Turness acknowledged in her staff memo Monday night, saying “he and I have come to the conclusion that this is not the right fit”) is likely to cost NBC a reported $3.3 million to pay out Horowitz’s three-year contract. It’s a tiny loss in the vast domain of a $140 billion company like Comcast, NBC’s corporate parent, but an unwelcome waste of money at a time of belt-tightening, buyouts, and layoffs in the financially stressed news division.
“Now they’re having to deny reports that two of the Today show anchors have been fired,” the veteran NBC executive added, referring to third-hour host Willie Geist and co-host Natalie Morales, who also reads the news on the four-hour program’s 7 a.m.-to-9 a.m. block.
Despite an Us Weekly “scoop” that was picked up by TV Guide, among other outlets, along with an explosion on Twitter and Facebook, the two anchors are actually keeping their jobs—though multiple sources confirm that Geist’s and Morales’s removal was part of Horowitz’s grand plan.
Also in his blueprint, according to multiple NBC sources, was giving Morales’s and Geist’s jobs to former GMA news reader Josh Elliott, a Horowitz pal who had left ABC News for NBC Sports in March (with the obvious intention of elbowing his way into the on-deck circle to succeed Lauer on Today), and replacing Lauer co-anchor Savannah Guthrie with fourth-hour cohost Hoda Kotb, another Horowitz ally.
“He was talking about getting rid of Savannah two weeks off her maternity leave,” says the NBC News type. “Nice. Seriously, it’s crazy. He was brought in to make change, and he thought lobbing a grenade in the middle of the room was the way to make change.”
Veteran morning show executive producer Shelley Ross—who presided over GMA for five years, when it was co-anchored by Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson, and then had a 26-week run producing CBS’s morning show—said she was sympathetic to Horowitz’s ambitions but that his apparent inattentiveness to Today’s alpha male, Lauer, was especially surprising.
“When you come in to make changes, everybody gets nervous about their jobs, so it’s unpopular and almost a fool’s errand if you don’t have the complete backing of management,” Ross said. “And Matt, having been blamed for not standing up for Ann Curry, is going to be concerned about any change in his female anchor chair. Is he going to go through that all over again? I don’t think so.”
A week ago, according to an informed source, Horowitz presented Turness with a written “manifesto” outlining his scheme; on reading it, she “took umbrage” and was horrified. The fact that a recent gossip item in the New York Post’s Page Six column named Horowitz as possible replacement as news division president for a beleaguered Turness—an item for which Horowitz or a supporter was widely believed to be the source—didn’t help his case. His fate was sealed.
“Basically, I feel sorry for everyone there,” said a morning television veteran from another network. “This guy had completely unrealistic ideas and the sense that it would be so easy to blow up major stars and a major program. And obviously management has completely lost control. Pat Fili and Deborah Turness—somebody needs to be looking at them!”
The morning TV maven added, however, that it’s often a good idea to make changes, “but you evolve the staff. You do it when contracts are up and you make one change at a time. But if you think you could blow up one of the biggest brands in television, make wholesale changes, affect so many stars’ lives, and totally disrupt a huge machine and a big news division that’s already struggling, you’re crazy.”