It may sound vaguely cute, but “Operation Bambi” was anything but. As detailed by the New York Times Magazine this week, “Operation Bambi” was the plot hatched by NBC executives to force Ann Curry from her co-anchor post on the Today show. The inner machinations that led to her teary signoff last June—and Matt Lauer’s apparent downfall and gleaming spot on this year’s list of “Most Hated Celebrities”—involve as much backstabbing, callousness and infighting as one might expect. Read on for the best bits from Brian Stelter’s behind-the-scenes story of the cutthroat world of morning TV and how Ann Curry got shoved out the door.
Curry still hasn’t recovered from the public debacle of her departure from the Today show. She still often wakes up before dawn sometimes, as if she’s about to go on air, and cries over messages from fans. “It feels like I died,” Curry reportedly told colleagues, “and I’ve seen my own wake.”
Curry was bullied in the office and felt that the “boys’ club atmosphere behind the scenes at Today undermined her from the start.” Stelter describes Today show executive producer Jim Bell commissioning a blooper reel of Curry’s “worst on-air mistakes,” though Bell now denies this. After being discouraged from taking the co-anchor office next to Matt Lauer, Curry moved in anyway—but boxes of Curry’s things ended up in a coat closet even before she was ever ousted. And the mostly male control room staff spent “a lot of time” making fun of Curry’s often colorful and strange outfit choices, once even going so far as to print a side-by-side photo of Big Bird and Curry in a yellow dress. “Who wore it best?” the paper asked.
The plot to kick her off the show was given its own nickname: Operation Bambi. Despite other noticeable factors behind Today’s lagging ratings—Stelter notes that the show had been using the same camera angles and scripted intros and outros since the ‘90s—Bell was convinced that Ann Curry was the problem. After an anonymous “morning-TV veteran” suggested to Bell that ousting Curry would be akin to “killing Bambi,” Bell hatched a three-part plot: convince Lauer to extend his contract, get rid of Curry, and replace her with Savannah Guthrie. According to Stelter’s source, Bell called this plan “Operation Bambi.”
Katie Couric was not a fan of Ann Curry. When Curry took over as news reader for Lauer in 1997, she made a play to take over for Couric every time she was away. According to “well-placed sources,” Couric did not appreciate her go-getter attitude. Producers said Couric thought Curry was “melodramatic” and “fake.”
Matt Lauer: “I can’t believe I am sitting next to this woman.” Though several executives were against the idea of Curry rising to co-host because of “a distinct lack of chemistry” with Lauer, they eventually promoted her once Meredith Viera left—but only because they had no better options. Curry had worked an exit clause into her contract that allowed her to bail on Today if she was passed over as co-host again (she was stung when informed that Viera would be taking over for Couric, not her). If Curry left and, the next year when his contract expired, Lauer did too, executives feared a Today “existential crisis.” So they promoted her once Viera left the job. But once Curry was co-host, mistakes quickly started stacking up against her: an embarrassing joke about not wearing deodorant, whisper-talking to grieving guests, and struggling to read from the teleprompter apparently led Lauer to complain to a production assistant, “I can’t believe I am sitting next to this woman.”
Executive producer Jim Bell took staff to celebrate Curry’s departure just hours after her teary televised signoff. Once Lauer did renew his contract (for a reported $25 million a year, no less) executive producer Bell put Operation Bambi back into action. Step one (keeping Matt) had been accomplished—next up was step two: getting rid of Ann. Bell took Curry to fancy French restaurant La Grenouille and pitched to her a specialized “global anchor” role that would allow her to travel more and focus on serious news. “She would never have to utter the name Casey Anthony again,” Stelter writes. Then a messy thing happened: The deadline that execs had set for Curry’s departure (which they had not told her about) was published in The New York Times, robbing Curry of the chance to exit gracefully. No matter what, everybody now knew she was being forced out. Regardless, Bell treated his top producers to a meal at “high-end NBC cafeteria,” Brasserie Ruhlmann, hours after Curry’s tearful June 28 departure from the show. “One observer said that he led the group in raising wineglasses to toast her departure,” Stelter writes. “The next day Guthrie’s appointment would be announced. Operation Bambi was complete.”
Curry doesn’t buy the “no chemistry” excuse. Critics cited a “lack of chemistry” between Curry and Lauer as the reason Curry was ill-fitted for the role of co-anchor (Lauer had looked genuinely embarrassed on Curry’s first day as co-host when she made that deodorant joke, for example). But Curry sees a different reason for her ouster, and it has to do with that “boys’ club” mentality that she says pervades Today. “‘Chemistry,’ in television history, generally means the man does not want to work with the woman,” Curry has reportedly said. “It’s an excuse generally used by men in positions of power to say, ‘The woman doesn’t work.’”
This is probably Matt Lauer’s last contract with the show. Hello, Anderson Cooper! Now that the Today show is mired in a PR debacle, ratings are still slipping (looks like Ann wasn’t the problem after all)—and Lauer is being blamed for breaking up “America’s First Family”—it seems almost certain that Lauer’s current contract will be his last. Deadline.com broke the news that NBC met with Anderson Cooper and discussed having him as a possible replacement. Cooper, “besides demonstrating the ability to guilelessly interview celebrities, [has] passed the all-important ‘9/11 test’—shorthand, in network speak, for someone with the gravitas to deliver the most significant news stories.” Don’t get too excited yet, though: Cooper’s potential role on Today would not take place until 2014. “According to one person with direct knowledge, one option called for Cooper to overlap with Lauer for 12 months, allowing for an orderly transition,” Stelter writes.