On Wednesday, Jan. 7, the same morning that heavily armed Islamic terrorists stormed a Parisian satire magazine and slaughtered a dozen people, the third hour of NBC’s Today show was all over the story.
But not that story.
Instead, the four regular cohosts, crammed together like morning rush-hour commuters, were yakking about Phylicia Rashad’s defense of her sitcom husband, Bill Cosby, and what she may have said about Cosby’s accusers to a gossip columnist.
As they plumbed the significance of this important breaking news, Tamron Hall, Willie Geist, Natalie Morales and Al Roker—left to right behind a glass-topped table—composed their features into somber masks of sorrow.
“On a lighter note…” Roker finally announced—a signal for the foursome to plunge giddily into the fripperies of Joe Biden’s nutty quips while swearing in new senators, and viral videos of a basketball ref talking on his cell phone while officiating a middle-school game and of impossibly cute pandas cavorting in the snow.
Geist did manage to get in a brief mention of the carnage in Paris, declaring the collective solidarity of Studio 1A with the citizens of France, but to do so he had to interrupt a discussion about how much longer the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree would be looming over the skating rink.
That was one of more conspicuous observations to be gleaned last week from viewing Today’s Take, as the venerable Today franchise’s third hour has been called since November 2012, when NBC management reinvented it to compete head to head with such entertainment and lifestyle shows as Live with Kelly and Michael on ABC and, in the New York market, The Queen Latifah Show on CBS.
Yet this particular lapse isn’t the only trouble with Today’s Take, which offers an occasionally grating viewing experience, with the hosts regularly stepping on each other’s lines and apparently gasping for airtime; the show also seems to lack that ineffable yet essential quality called “chemistry.”
Positioned in a network netherworld between the original, usually newsy Today show and the boozily insouciant fourth hour, Today with Kathie Lee and Hoda, the third hour was one of the elements that former ESPN programmer Jamie Horowitz had planned to demolish and reconstruct before he was fired after a mere 10 weeks as general manager of the Today brand.
Which brings us back to Paris. As a longtime fan of Today, the mother of all network morning programs that has dominated the genre for most of the past 63 years, I find it disconcerting that a program ostensibly produced by NBC’s respected news division would ignore the biggest story so far of 2015.
It’s as if the network suits have decided that at the stroke of 9 o’clock in the morning, viewers suddenly become stupid and reality-averse, and wish only to watch “Ostrich TV,” heads firmly in the sands of hokey, jokey domestic stories.
Indeed, the next day, as French police mounted a dragnet for the marauding terrorists, Today’s Take overlooked the ongoing drama in favor of swooning over album-shilling celebrity guest Garth Brooks; on Friday, as the gendarmes laid siege to the pair of jihadi brothers who’d taken a hostage and holed up in a printing plant north of Paris, and a third Islamic radical terrorized a kosher grocery store, Today’s Take devoted all of four minutes to the mayhem. (An NBC News spokesperson to declined to defend the eccentric programming decision on the record.)
“Most days, as a general principle, it’s OK to focus on lifestyle and celebrity, but there is something wrong with the management if they are so locked into their format, they can’t respond to breaking news events,” says television news analyst Andrew Tyndall, noting that a catastrophe of the magnitude of the Charlie Hebdo massacre is a rare occurrence.
“If you represent yourself as a news program, then you should be able to break out of your format. On the five percent of days when major news is happening, you have to be able to preempt normal programming.”
Equally baffling, Tyndall says, was the strange judgment that Today’s Take viewers, and even those who’d normally be watching Live with Kelly and Michael or The Queen Latifah Show, wouldn’t have been riveted by the mayhem in Paris. “It’s a serious story, but it also makes for good television,” Tyndall says. “This one had drama as well as gravity.”
In fairness, the marquee 7-to-9 a.m. Today program, which has been struggling to regain the top ratings spot after being toppled by ABC’s Good Morning America two-and-a-half years ago, costing the network tens of millions of dollars in lost advertising revenue, provided thorough coverage of the events in Paris, with correspondents Richard Engel, Lester Holt and Bill Neely (a recent import from Britain’s ITV, the former network of current NBC News President Deborah Turness) reporting from the scene.
On Friday, the network also replaced Today’s usually taped West Coast feed with a live special report anchored by Savannah Guthrie as French SWAT teams moved in on the terrorists—even preempting Kathie Lee and Hoda on the East Coast. And notwithstanding NBC’s embarrassing Wednesday screwup, a “scoop” that the assassins had already been captured or killed—we all make mistakes—there are a lot of smart, talented folks at Today and at NBC News as a whole.
That said, there seem to be more fundamental issues at Today’s Take beyond a sporadic lapse in journalistic judgment. For one thing, I don’t pretend to know whether Tamron Hall and Natalie Morales like each other in real life—let’s say, for the sake argument, that they do—but their on-camera relationship is decidedly tense.
Earlier in the week, before the eruption in Europe, Hall seemed to take offense that Morales—who is a competent news reader on Today’s first two hours but here often seems like she’s grasping for things to say—was insufficiently appreciative of one of Hall’s aunts who was in the hospital.
“You love her!” Hall ordered, prompting Morales to agree with questionable sincerity, “I love your aunt, even though I’ve never met her.”
Last November, after Us Weekly reported erroneously that Morales and Geist had been fired from the program, Hall seemed to draw blood when she joked to her female cohost: “What are you doing here?”
Funny or not—and Morales wasn’t laughing—those sorts of quips come a tad too sharply at that hour of the day; if viewers want to experience a family squabble, they can do it at their own breakfast table.
Meanwhile, longtime weatherman Al Roker—by far the best known of the foursome—has proved over many years that he can be witty and fast on his feet. Yet here, often, he resorts to musty clowning—“How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice!” he all but shouted at nonplussed comedian Patton Oswalt—and he seems to take an unhealthy interest in the single Hall’s love life.
When Hall mentioned in passing on Tuesday that she was tired after being up all night, Roker asked lasciviously, “Why were you up all night?”—causing Hall to giggle and cover her face. Roker sometimes resembles a Looney Tunes cartoon character—as when on Tuesday he decided to perform the weather at incomprehensible, eye-bulging quadruple speed, ostensibly because Maya Rudolph gave him a highly caffeinated cup of espresso.
Or maybe Roker, a movie fan, is simply doing his impression of Jim Carrey in The Mask.
Geist, for his part, often seems above the fray, maybe too even-tempered for this crazy crew. They are continually barging in on one another’s remarks, sometimes making their attempts at conversation almost indecipherable.
As one “LynnieBoe,” an aggrieved viewer of Today’s Take, recently complained on the fan site TV.com, “I've been watching the Today show for over 20 years and I have to leave it. I can't stand the way that the anchors talk over each other. I think it's just plain rude and irritating. I know that ratings are down—why can't the producers figure out that this is one of the reasons?... It's as if their huge egos are competing for who is going to talk the most and be the most important. I can’t take it anymore.”