Editor’s note: This piece was originally published in the April 1, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.
The knife springs open with a satisfying snap.
Matt Lauer, the co-host of the Today show, turns it over in his hand, marveling at the blade.
“Come to papa!” he says.
Sitting at his glass-topped desk on the morning-show set, Lauer, meticulously outfitted in a green-gray plaid suit and a burnt-orange tie, has asked the crew for props for a segment on new TSA rules allowing small knives on commercial airliners. A crewman offered up this specimen from his belt holster.
“You know how long it is?” inquires a producer who sits alongside Lauer with a sheaf of notes.
“It’s long enough to get right to your heart, is what it is,” says Lauer.
I casually try snapping a picture with my phone.
“Whoa!” Lauer yells, suddenly serious, pulling back the knife with the reflexes of a practiced fighter. For a moment, he seems unsettled. “Here’s Matt with a switchblade,” says Lauer, imagining the caption. “Great.”
If Matt Lauer doesn’t want to be seen with sharp knives, it’s because last summer his co-host Ann Curry was discovered with one in her back. She was swiftly replaced by a younger, more genial woman, Savannah Guthrie. Ever since, Lauer has been the prime suspect in Curry’s virtual demise. Five million viewers, the majority of them women, would not soon forget how Curry, the intrepid female correspondent and emotionally vivid anchor, spent her last appearance on the Today show couch openly weeping, devastated at having to leave after only a year. The image of Matt Lauer trying to comfort her — and of Curry turning away from his attempted kiss—has become a kind of monument to the real Matt Lauer, forensic evidence of his guilt.
The truest truism of morning-TV shows is that they are like families, or aspire to be — it’s a matter of practiced artifice, faked from the first minute to the last. But reality can’t always be kept out of the picture.
On Curry’s final day, Lauer realized the scene was catastrophic even as cameras rolled. “I think we all knew it at that moment,” says Lauer during an interview with his current co-hosts, Al Roker, Natalie Morales, and Guthrie. “And it just seemed like something — there was nothing we could do as it was happening, and we all felt bad about it.”
What followed was the implosion of the most profitable franchise in network television. After sixteen years as the No. 1 morning show in America, Today was worth nearly half a billion dollars a year in advertising revenue to NBC, the bedrock of its business. In the aftermath of the Curry debacle, the show lost half a million viewers and ceded first place in the ratings war to ABC’s Good Morning America, losing millions of dollars overnight.
Blamed in the press for his co-host’s offing, Lauer has watched helplessly as his reputation gets battered week after week. When Chelsea Handler joked to him on Today earlier this month, “You have a worse reputation than I do,” Lauer’s smile sharpened into something that wouldn’t make it past airport security.
The producers of Today are employing every trick they know to rebuild the family’s chemistry, retooling the set, fiddling with the mix of stories, going for more uplift and smiles. But the show is still haunted by what happened, and is still happening, offscreen, the internal struggles and animosities casting strange shadows. Matt Lauer smiles for a living, but offstage he has been obsessed with the situation, brooding about his ratings and his enemies while trying to put forward his own version of events. If Lauer is guilty in the hosticide of Ann Curry (he’s certainly not innocent), he’s far from the only guilty party. For all the smiles, TV hosts often get offed, for all sorts of reasons. As Hyman Roth said in Godfather 2: This is the business they’ve chosen.
What had separated Today from its competitors in its decades as the No. 1 morning show was a natural-seeming chemistry between its anchors. The cast of Matt Lauer, Katie Couric, Al Roker, and Ann Curry was once marketed as “America’s First Family,” a morning-news analog to NBC’s prime-time megahit Friends. As the sturdy straight man, Lauer bonded with women by showing he could bake a cake with the same ease with which he could grill a politician, then effortlessly josh with the avuncular Al Roker, the jovial weatherman, for comic relief. It looked real. For a while, it was.
NBC was highly protective of its No. 1 perch in the morning. The pressure was intense; the network fired producers over internal squabbling or when the ratings dipped. In 2005, Good Morning America nearly overtook Today under the direction of a fiercely competitive executive producer named Ben Sherwood, who came within 45,000 viewers of erasing Today’s winning streak. In the days before the ratings results, Lauer was nerve-racked about Today’s prospects. Sherwood viewed the rivalry as pure warfare. “They’ve got all their big guns out,” he said at the time. “They will fight most fiercely. We will fight most fiercely.”
When Katie Couric departed to CBS to anchor the evening news for $15 million a year, legendary Today show producer Jeff Zucker managed to keep the familial turbulence to a minimum, installing Meredith Vieira, a warm, maternal presence who helped sustain the family dynamic and Today’s ratings lead. Vieira decided to depart in 2011 to spend more time with her ailing husband, which brought the show to a troubling crossroads. Already Today’s ratings advantage was slipping. And Ann Curry was next in line for the job of sitting beside Lauer.
The irony of the current situation is that almost no one with an eye for live television thought that Curry, all things being equal, was a natural for Today’s couch. Curry was a television pro — her emotionally charged reporting on Darfur and Haiti won awards and performed well in the ratings—but that’s a very different skill than making small talk about salad dressing and bantering with Matt Lauer. Wide-eyed and breathless with empathy while interviewing people touched by tragedy, Curry could be awkward and mercurial in the morning happy-talk milieu, her real feelings bursting forth at odd moments. She was considered intensely earnest and somewhat fragile, despite her hard-news chops. In the past, Couric would sometimes tease her about her clothes, remarks that Curry took badly. When Lauer and Today producers tried to “punk” the rest of the cast one morning in 2011—sending them to a fake magazine photo shoot where the photographer had a meltdown and started firing all his assistants—Curry was infuriated with Lauer and retreated to her dressing room. Roker, her longtime friend, was sent to comfort her.
Curry’s contract, negotiated by then–NBC television head Jeff Zucker, stipulated that if she didn’t get the co-anchor job, she could leave the network. She had been passed over the last time, when Vieira was hired. But both Lauer and Jim Bell, the executive producer at the time, were opposed to putting Curry in the co-host chair. Lauer attempted to bring Couric back to NBC, proposing an arrangement where she would co-host Today for a couple of years and do a daytime talk show with Lauer as well. But the network balked over money. So they decided not to make the deal, and after Couric, NBC management simply didn’t have another plan — Ann Curry was the choice by process of elimination. She was installed as co-host of Today in June 2011.
Part of the reason NBC couldn’t come up with a plan B was that, at the time, the network was going through an enormous upheaval. The cable behemoth Comcast had agreed to acquire a majority stake in NBC from longtime owner General Electric, and one of its first acts was to remove Zucker, who had let the prime-time lineup sink to last in the ratings. Steve Burke, a Comcast executive with no experience in TV production, replaced Zucker, and for NBC’s people, managing up became as important as managing down.
Within six months, executive producer Jim Bell had come to the conclusion that Curry wasn’t working out. She frequently stumbled over the words on the teleprompter and her intensity sometimes made her difficult to watch during interviews with tragedy victims. But, more important, Lauer looked awkward and unhappy next to her — a situation that Lauer himself had also diagnosed. He openly complained about her to NBC staffers and to Bell. And the ratings seemed to reflect her struggles.
As Don Nash, the current executive producer, told me about the realities of on-air chemistry: “You can’t fake it for very long that early in the morning. I think viewers have a sixth sense about all that. If your two anchors don’t like each other off the air, they’re not going to be fooled if they love each other on the air.”
In January of last year, rumors began circulating that Curry was on the outs. An unnamed NBC source told New York at the time that if the ratings didn’t improve, Curry could be replaced by NBC’s White House correspondent, Savannah Guthrie. “She’s got that girl-next-door quality,” the person said.
But by that point, it wasn’t simply a matter of unplugging one female host and plugging in another. Curry was a real person now — huge swaths of her audience loved her. That was the point when Today’s drama became three-dimensional, with a highly public insider struggle as counterpoint to the cheerful banter transpiring onscreen. Angered by the report, Curry complained to the public-relations department at NBC. But more leaks came hinting that Curry’s days were numbered. As Good Morning America edged upward in the ratings, Bell told people it was Curry dragging them down. The network was coming under pressure from some of its own affiliates to remove Curry, with general managers complaining in board meetings that she had to go. “Don’t you guys see this?” wrote an influential G.M. from Pittsburgh.
But internal research conducted by a company called SmithGeiger showed something different: When Lauer was onscreen with Curry, it was Lauer who became less appealing to viewers, not Curry. “He was looking aloof, a little bit holier-than-thou, and pompous,” says a former NBC executive who viewed the reports. “He was becoming Bryant Gumbel.” (Gumbel, Lauer’s close friend and frequent golf partner, left Today with a similar reputation.)
It was obvious to Bell and others that Lauer wasn’t trying hard enough to make it work with Curry because he simply didn’t like her. Off air, Curry and Lauer had no relationship and barely spoke. When she started, Curry had asked Lauer out for lunch to get advice, but Lauer seemed to drag his feet scheduling it and Curry felt he didn’t offer much. With Couric and Vieira, Lauer could be an easygoing straight man; with Curry, who threw off his rhythm and also threatened his dominance of the hard-news stories, he could often look sour.
By early last year, Lauer seemed to his colleagues to be growing more and more disgruntled. He began getting more involved in the daily story lineup, getting into fights with producers and tearing the show up in the early-morning hours. He made it clear to friends that he was miserable with Curry and uncomfortable with his corporate masters at Comcast. He spoke often of downsizing his work life, playing more golf, spending more time with his kids in the Hamptons.
Lauer’s unhappiness was evident to Bell. A former Harvard football player with a garrulous personality, Bell was ascendant at NBC, a 45-year-old acolyte of the legendary sports producer Dick Ebersol. In addition to running Today, Bell had been named executive producer of NBC’s Olympics coverage (Comcast paid $4.4 billion for the rights to broadcast the Games through 2020). Consequently, Bell had special entrée to Steve Burke, the NBCUniversal president who had been deeply involved in cutting the Olympics deal. In the months leading up to Lauer’s contract decision, Bell began talking with Burke about the future of Today. How could they keep Matt Lauer from leaving NBC? And what about Ann Curry?
But this is where it gets complicated. Technically speaking, Bell’s direct boss was Steve Capus, president of NBC News, who’d risen to power as the aggressive producer of Nightly News. Capus was involved in some of those conversations and agreed that Curry was a problem. But that wasn’t Capus’s only issue. He was rankled by Bell’s close relationship with Burke, worrying that Bell was consolidating power and angling to replace him. The two jockeyed for control over the Curry situation, sending mixed messages and sowing confusion, which made the trouble much harder to resolve.
Flirting With the Enemy
Lauer’s version of events is that Steve Capus came to him in late February and said Curry was going to be removed from the Today show, regardless of whether Lauer left or not. Lauer says he expressed trepidation about the move, fearing it would hurt the show. But the ratings were softening, and the trend lines showed Good Morning America poised to overtake Today if they didn’t change course.
But Capus’s statement was not the crucial inflection point in Curry’s departure. Rather, it was part of a careful dance over Lauer’s future at NBC. Lauer was the franchise, and his views on Curry were already well known, so the statement was as much a promise as it was a threat: If he stayed, Curry would be gone.
And at the moment they informed him of Curry’s exit, Lauer himself appeared halfway out the door. Three months earlier, Lauer had been angered by a press leak that Capus and Bell were talking to Ryan Seacrest about possibly replacing him. (Lauer learned of the leak while being forced to stand outside the security gate at the White House Christmas party because Ann Curry had forgotten her driver’s license.) In trying to placate Lauer, Burke had given him a window to explore other jobs, but they made it clear that Seacrest was really just an insurance policy; they didn’t want Lauer to leave. But Lauer, possibly as a negotiating tactic, was taking leaving pretty seriously. He’d begun working closely with Zucker to develop an idea for ABC: the Katie Couric daytime talk show with Matt Lauer — together again. Lauer met with Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney, ABC’s parent company, who made a strong effort to recruit Lauer.
Prominently featured in these talks was the president of ABC News, Ben Sherwood, the tall, arch-browed former producer of Good Morning America. Fond of using epic historical analogies to describe business maneuvers, Sherwood had risen to the top of ABC News and was now eager to peel Lauer away from Today and finally beat his arch-rival.
There were issues of both timing and money, but the larger corporate strategy was clear: If ABC could poach Lauer, then Today, NBC’s cash cow, would fall from its perch, Good Morning America would be ascendant, and the entire NBC network would crumple like a house of cards. The ABC deal, in its final form, would feature Lauer in a dual role: co-host of the daytime program with Couric and also as an ABC News personality.
What happened next would color everything that happened after: For a few days in late March, Iger, Zucker, and Sherwood all believed they had been told by both Lauer and his agent, Ken Linder, that Lauer was coming to ABC. In their minds, the deal was done, with only the legalities to be worked out. But the following week, Lauer surprised them all by calling and saying thanks but no thanks. Iger was infuriated, as was Zucker. Sherwood would not soon forget: In the months to come, he would spend an inordinate amount of time poking at Lauer and reveling in Schadenfreude.
Before giving ABC the bad news, Lauer had gone back to NBC and said he was prepared to negotiate a new contract. Lauer has said he remained to help shepherd Today through a tough period, because he cared about the show and the staff — but this act of selflessness was rewarded with a fairly hefty check. Burke agreed to give Lauer more money than any morning-news anchor had ever received in the history of television: a reported $25 million a year to work four days a week.
Lauer says Curry’s name never came up in his contract talks. (Burke declined to comment.) But her fate was already sealed. From top to bottom, Burke, Lauer, Capus, and Bell had all agreed that Curry would be taken off the show, with Today rebuilt around Lauer. At the moment when he had maximum leverage with NBC, Lauer, as the multimillion-dollar megastar, could easily have saved her—but he didn’t. To the contrary, in signing a new contract to remain at the show for at least two more years, he tacitly ratified the plan to remove her. Which doesn’t make him a horrible person — it makes him, for better or worse, a pro.
The week after he re-signed, Lauer appeared on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter with the headline “The Most Powerful Face in News.” Even Lauer saw dark tidings in all this: After seeing the cover line, he told the writer of the story, “You just hung a huge target on my back.”
The previous week, Capus scoffed at the idea that Good Morning America might beat Today,telling a reporter that it was “not going to happen.” The very next week, it did: On April 19, ratings showed that Good Morning America had beaten the Today show by 31,000 viewers, breaking Today’s sixteen-year winning streak. Ben Sherwood and the staff of Good Morning America were overjoyed, throwing a victory party on a rooftop overlooking the Hudson River. That day, Good Morning America’s co-host Robin Roberts was diagnosed with MDS, a cancerlike blood disease. Her health struggles would soon become a televised narrative on ABC, reality again intruding on television.
That same week, Bell went to Curry’s dressing room and told her they needed to consider a new role at NBC. Curry asked Bell how she could improve. About two weeks later, Bell took Curry to lunch at one of his favorite restaurants, La Grenouille, on 52nd Street, where he tried selling her on a new roving correspondent role, complete with her own production unit.
Thus began a series of delicate and painful talks with Curry about her future. From the start, Bell was unequivocal that Curry needed to leave in time for the London Olympics in July. But then there was Capus. Increasingly paranoid about Bell’s power and designs, he began engaging in a series of open-ended conversations with Curry in which he told her that she wasn’t the problem with the show. Instead, Capus said, the show’s programming was flawed; Bell had allowed it to become too soft. Capus fanned Curry’s hope that she could hang on longer and undermined Bell’s strategy of resetting the Today show cast during the Olympics. In early June, an interview with Curry in Ladies’ Home Journal came out saying she saw herself at Today for another five years.
As the internal conversations dragged on for weeks, the tension between Capus and Bell paralyzed NBC. Curry, without an agent, was doing her own bargaining. Her elliptical conversational style was interpreted by some as cunning, others as sheer denial. People from all sides counseled her on what to do, including Tom Brokaw, himself a former Today host.
It finally dawned on Lauer and the NBC brain trust that the blowback from pushing out Curry might be worse than any gains they anticipated. Lauer began to do damage control. Over lunch at The Four Seasons, he advised Curry to get an agent so she could resolve her situation and openly worried that the timing of her exit would lead people to believe he’d forced her out during his contract negotiation. Lauer says he told NBC management that Curry’s exit was “a disaster waiting to happen” and argued that they needed to wait until after the Olympics, as Capus was now advising.
But even after Curry hired the Washington lawyer and master negotiator Robert Barnett, the talks dragged on without resolution. Meanwhile, ratings pressure was mounting. A year into Curry’s tenure as co-host, NBC lost half a million viewers while ABC gained on them. And on June 11, ABC News announced publicly that Robin Roberts was sick.
What finally forced a resolution was not an agreement between Ann Curry and NBC but a leak to reporter Brian Stelter of the New York Times that Curry was being forced off the Today show. Stelter, an ambitious reporter and hyperactive Twitter star who once interviewed for a job at NBC, was a hovering presence in the morning-TV world as he worked on a forthcoming book called Top of the Morning, which promised to be the definitive account of what was happening at Today. Fingers began pointing over the leak. Was it Jim Bell trying to force Curry’s hand? Was it a negotiating tactic by Curry’s lawyer? (Stelter, for his part, says it was not Camp Curry.) Lauer assured his booker, “My hands are clean.” Bell considered pulling Curry off the air, waiting till the evening to decide whether she could appear on television the next day. The following morning, Curry was discovered crying in her dressing room before airtime.
For a few days, Curry spoke to no one. The set was funereal. Curry was mad at Bell, Bell was angry with Curry, and Capus was angry at Bell. The next week, a deal was finally hammered out: Curry would get $12 million, and her own production unit at NBC, to leave Today. The day before her last morning, Curry wrote her own copy, telling Capus she wanted to “speak from the heart.” That same night, Lauer called in to ask, “So when am I taking my cyanide pill tomorrow?”
The events of the following morning are now the stuff of television infamy. Along with Bell, Burke was in the control room. When the time came to say good-bye, Curry broke down and wept as she read the script, her eyes red and swollen, appearing to recoil from a visibly shaken Lauer.
Some at NBC believed Curry purposefully self-destructed to damage both Lauer and the show, with one producer describing it as the morning-show equivalent of Curry “strapping on C4” explosives. But few dispute that her emotional state was real. After she left the set at 30 Rock, she got into a car on 48th Street and was driven to the airport to catch a flight to California. She cried the entire way.
After the Divorce
“We’re lawyered up!” yells Al Roker as he and the current cast of the Today show — Lauer, Guthrie, and Morales — walk into a small greenroom at 30 Rock and pull up chairs in a tight semicircle for an interview.
They’re accompanied by two public-relations handlers and the two top producers, Don Nash and Alexandra Wallace. This is the way they want to appear: the way a family would, a unified front.
“I think that was a hard day for everyone who cares about this show,” says a nervous Guthrie. “All of us … feel connected to what happened … and feel it really personally.”
“Yeah, it was … painful,” ventures Roker, a longtime friend of Curry’s. “And anytime a friend of yours is hurting, it’s painful. But I was also thinking about the audience, and it had to be painful for them.”
It was. While the Manhattan media world had seen Curry’s exit coming for months, middle-American viewers recoiled at the raw reality on their screens. Part of the genius of a morning show is that the audience falls in love with the hosts, gets comfortable with them. Which, when a split occurs, becomes an enormous problem. In the space of a few weeks, Today lost a fifth of its audience, what a rival network executive compares to an iceberg sliding into the ocean. Today lost $40 million in advertising revenue from the ratings decline.
Guthrie, the winsome new girl, suddenly found herself in the middle of a media disaster, painted by the tabloids as the “other woman” who ousted Curry. Her agent was furious when he saw how NBC fumbled the transition, believing NBC allowed Curry to hurt the show. Though it had been clear for months that Guthrie was waiting in the wings to replace Curry, she had been careful not to openly angle for the job. Her role was negotiated on the very day of the Stelter report. When she was asked to become co-host, Guthrie cried in Capus’s office, worried that Curry, and Today viewers, would see her as the backstabber.
The biggest blowback, of course, was aimed directly at Today’s main star, Matt Lauer. In the coming months, his Q scores, a measure of audience favorability, sank from 19 to a lackluster 9, the air suddenly rushing out of the balloon. It wasn’t necessarily that Lauer was different; it was that he was perceived differently, with viewers wondering if he was really who he was pretending to be, given what had just happened to his partner, a woman who’d seemed to be, with some minor turbulence, his “friend.”
Ann Curry was gone but not gone, which created a situation of spectacular awkwardness. Any trust that had existed between Curry and Today was shattered. When Robin Roberts left Good Morning America a month later to get treatment for MDS, Curry asked NBC if she could tweet a note of sympathy for the ABC co-host. NBC said no, afraid she was trying to aid the enemy. In late July, when Curry was assigned to cover the shootings in Aurora, Colorado, she refused to appear on the air with Guthrie, believing Bell was trying to exploit the event for image repair.
In the original plan, the Olympics would be the opportunity to hit the RESET button and establish the Lauer-Guthrie duo with viewers. But while Today was in London, Curry sent out a cryptic tweet that made it clear she was miserable. In early August, a week into the Olympics, she wrote, “When I despair I remember that throughout history, truth and love have always won.” (An even more pointed tweet was subsequently deleted.)
When Curry flew to London, the show attempted to stage an on-air reunion between Lauer and Curry. But Curry, who sat in her car a few yards from the set until her shot was ready, refused to speak to Lauer as he tried making small talk. On the air, Curry pretended Lauer didn’t exist after he turned to her to introduce a segment she had produced. Lauer looked stiff and isolated.
The Today show won those two weeks in the ratings, but they would prove an anomaly. Good Morning America immediately sprang back to No. 1.
While in London, Lauer and Today’s producers discussed the direction of the show and how to change it. “When we got back to New York, it was a time to start fresh, and we had to stop thinking about what had happened in the past and start building a future for the show,” says Don Nash, who was then the No. 2 producer under Bell. “We all had to love our show again and be enthusiastic about it.”
But not everyone was feeling it. That same month, Roker suggested, in a now-infamous clip on live TV, that NBC had unfairly axed Curry. While interviewing a group of female crew rowers who said they threw members into the river to celebrate victory, Roker joked that “our tradition” at the Today show “is to throw one of us under the bus! But that’s another story.”
Roker insists his comment wasn’t referring to the Curry situation: “It never even dawned on me that people could possibly construe that it was directed at [Matt Lauer].”
As weeks passed, the story line that Lauer had pushed out Curry became a twinned narrative to what was happening every day on the show. Morale plunged, and disgruntled employees leaked regularly to the tabloids. Thus began a continuous drip feed of negative reports on Lauer. “Backlash! Matt Lauer Hated at Today Show After Ann Curry’s Firing,” went one headline; another: “Matt Lauer ‘Obsessively’ Watches Good Morning America, As Today’s Ratings Keep Sinking.”
Lauer drove the staff harder than ever and was emphatic that either Burke or Bell get in front of the negative wave that was hitting him. In September, Bell was sent out to do a series of interviews insisting that Curry’s disastrous exit “wasn’t Matt’s fault,” but it did nothing to quell skepticism, not even within NBC’s own ranks. “Everybody at NBC, everybody at the Today show, everybody understood that Ann was kicked out of her position because Matt didn’t want her there,” says a prominent NBC staffer. “That’s why it was so personal between Ann and Matt.”
Ben Sherwood may not have envisioned this specific situation, but it was certainly the outcome he’d been dreaming of, with ABC finally at No. 1. Sherwood and his minions rubbed it in, getting revenge for all the years of Today’s dominance. And while reality was sinking the Today show, it was, oddly, lifting Good Morning America. Today show producers resented the fact that ABC was using the health problems of Robin Roberts to stoke viewer sympathy and expand on their ratings lead, feeling it was cynical—even though Today had done the same thing a decade ago when Katie Couric used her husband’s death from colon cancer to promote an on-air colonoscopy that was a ratings smash.
NBC News was in disarray after the Olympics. Burke installed a network executive named Pat Fili-Krushel to oversee Capus, whose career at NBC was swiftly winding down (he would retire in February). When Bell was moved off Today, Fili-Krushel tried replacing him with two women producers, but Lauer protested and pressured her to hire Bell’s former No. 2, Don Nash. Fili-Krushel hired NBC producer Alexandra Wallace (disclosure: Her brother, Ben, is a writer for this magazine) to oversee the redesign of the show. In the months leading up to this, both Nash and Wallace had eyed the door, having informal conversations with ABC News.
All the while, Brian Stelter, the Times reporter, was documenting the Today show meltdown. Lauer refused to give Stelter an interview, believing he was working hand in glove with Ben Sherwood to tear him down in the press (an impression that Stelter vehemently denies). And indeed, Sherwood was fanning bad news about Lauer.
When I bring up the press about him, Lauer grows agitated. “There was a piling on,” he says. “Fair, untrue, unfair, it didn’t matter, there was a wave of negativity.
“When the media covers something, it’s important to do basic homework. You can’t just repeat something over and over again until it sounds true. It’s not fair. You know how much trouble we would be in if we did that? If we repeated what one person told us over and over like it was a basic fact? We would be done.”
“It’s not just the New York Post,” adds Roker. “It’s everyone.”
“The show was No. 1 for so long that that story may have gotten a little old,” muses Nash. “So when they see an opportunity to tell a different story, everybody seizes on it. It’s hard to always control the narrative.”
But Lauer and the Today show found themselves in a bind: Curry refused to help them repair the damage, and it would be suicidal for Lauer to blame Curry for what was befalling him. Curry had morphed into a kind of martyr, and her defenders say she did nothing to harm NBC.
“I think it’s unfair to blame Ann for any of the problems that she had,” says Nicholas Kristof, the Times columnist and a close friend of Curry’s. “They were incredibly lucky to have stabbed in the back somebody who wasn’t in the least vindictive and had the interest of the Today show at heart even after they treated her so wretchedly.”
At one point, I ask the cast why Curry never helped repair the damage.
“You’d have to ask her that,” says Roker.
Did Lauer ever try talking to Curry about fixing the perception that her ouster was his fault?
“No, I have not ever had that conversation,” he said.
“Because I’m concentrating on doing the show,” Lauer says, “not concentrating on spinning the damage and trying to end the negativity on a daily basis.”
When I evince skepticism, Lauer says, “You’re rolling your eyes like you don’t believe us, but that’s just not a conversation we’re having.”
But the answer is obvious: Matt Lauer was helpless to convince her otherwise.
The Wounds Time Heals
There’s talk of a live sloth on the set. I hear Martha Stewart declare, “Herring juice! Yum!”On a cool morning in March, the control-room chatter at the Today show rises to a crescendo at 7 a.m., like a ship taking off, as executive producer Don Nash stands before a bank of screens, hands on hips, like Captain Kirk navigating the Enterprise. Another producer sees Stewart in one of the screens and declares: “She looks 100 years old!”
In the early-morning hours, starting a little after four, Lauer and Guthrie are briefed on stories in their dressing rooms and emerge before seven to prerecord the opening. On this day, the producers feature two segments with Martha Stewart, both handled by Lauer. The first is about her legal battle with Macy’s over distribution of her housewares, the other a meat-loaf-cooking segment. Lauer’s talent is telegraphing a pleasing, likable gravitas, and in his Stewart interview, he strikes his signature pose: He leans on his right elbow, legs crossed and swiveled left, reading glasses in right hand, pen in left, while he poses questions with a tone of tactful skepticism, his eyebrows cocked in expectation. Then he switches the pen to the other hand, dons his glasses, and reads from notes as if from a stone tablet of inescapable truth, almost sorry he has to go there. Then glasses off, eyebrows up.
But the interview isn’t as tough as it appears. The questions he asks are the ones Stewart was prepared for, and both Lauer and Stewart benefit from the appearance of a sharp exchange. Fifteen minutes later, Lauer is asking Stewart whether overmixing the hamburger and the bread crumbs might make the meat loaf too dense. This isn’t his first meat-loaf session.
For NBC, Lauer’s talent is worth $25 million a year. Or at least it used to be. Now the bond between the star and his audience is damaged. “The guy is a legendary morning-show anchor,” says Nash. “He’s the Johnny Carson of morning TV. There’s nobody better than him. That’s why it’s so hard to read all the negative press.”
Last fall, Today producers used a research firm called Sterling to help analyze how viewers felt about the show. The producers flew to Florida to hang out in viewers’ living rooms, identifying themselves as researchers. A woman named Adrianna, for instance, thought the interviews went on too long, but she liked the weatherman. “People told us, ‘I love that Al Roker,’ ” says Wallace. “So they’re getting more Al Roker. It’s not an anti-Matt thing at all.”
In trying to rebuild Lauer’s image, Today created a series of advertisements last January describing the cast as longtime friends who know one another’s kids. On the show, producers started putting Lauer in a four-person configuration at a new, wider desk, alongside Guthrie, Roker, and Morales, which replicates the group setup one sees on Good Morning America. “We’re not trying to hide Matt,” insists Nash, “but I think there’s a greater sense of energy when we have all four there.”
This summer, Today will have a brighter, warmer set, getting away from the smoked-glass-and-taupe stage it has now, which Wallace acknowledged was too “cool.” Uplift and warmth are the new buzzwords at Today. And a sense of transparency: The show has also borrowed a trick from CBS This Morning, using a Steadicam to reveal the set from behind the scenes so viewers get a 360-degree feel.
Today producers grouse that ABC has taken the low road by leading the morning news with lurid crime stories and cheesy viral YouTube videos, larding on game-show segments. Today has done less crime, but fills the show with its own variety of tacky stunts and plenty of chatter about YouTube. But in the end it’s about the stars, not the stories. To jump-start the frisson between Lauer and Guthrie, Nash is building in more reaction shots from the two co-anchors so they can emote. “All I can do is create opportunity,” says Nash. “I can’t create chemistry.”
From his vantage point on the set, Lauer believes Today has turned a corner. “The show that you watched yesterday and today is fundamentally different than the show we were doing six months ago,” he says. “That’s been a conscious effort. We will find a way each day to uplift and inspire you. It’s more who we are. We are not dour, depressed people.”
(“That’s who we are!” declares Hoda Kotb, the co-host of the tacky fourth hour of Today, who barges into the room with Kathie Lee Gifford.)
Lauer continues: “I’m confident that the show we’re doing today is the one that will allow us to dig ourselves out of the hole.”
But Today’s own staff appear divided on that, with some leaking their criticisms to the press, including to Stelter, Lauer’s nemesis, who recently reported on speculation that Lauer could be taken off the show. Inside NBC, Stelter’s report was viewed as retaliation for Lauer’s having given an interview to the Daily Beast trying to defend himself against the story line that he was the villain in the Curry debacle — a narrative he believes Stelter will publish in his book this April, along with previously reported allegations in the National Enquirer that Lauer had an affair with co-host Natalie Morales.
But few are letting Lauer off the hook.
There are smart people in the TV business, some within NBC, who say the show cannot hope to regain No. 1 in the morning with Matt Lauer in the chair. Others disagree, but acknowledge it will take a long time—as long as five years. Does NBC have that kind of time?
“Unless you’ve heard any differently,” says Wallace, laughing blackly, “we’re under the impression we do.”
Lauer’s contract is up within the next two years, providing a small window. NBC News executives have already had conversations about who might fill Lauer’s seat if and when he leaves, and there is indeed informed speculation inside NBC that Lauer could leave within the year. MSNBC’s Willie Geist, the Morning Joe anchor who also appears in the third hour of Today, is often mentioned as a replacement, but so are others, including Good Morning America’s Josh Elliott.
Last month, Today featured a segment in which Lauer pranked several members of the cast and crew into trying out an amazing new product: a mirror that would make them look younger. But it wasn’t a magic mirror at all. When people stood in front of it, they gasped at a terrifying special effect inside: the ghostly apparition of a woman.
*This article originally appeared in the April 1, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.