As Today show ratings suffer, can Matt Lauer be saved?
Can Matt Lauer be saved?
That's the question hanging in the air as the Today show anchor begins speaking out to media and NBC's cash cow of a morning show struggles to overcome serious ratings comeuppance.
The drive to rehab Lauer's image seemed to start with an interview in the Daily Beast on Monday, where NBC's $25 million man admitted he was troubled over the public drubbing he is taking over the ouster of anchor Ann Curry last year. He also made the case that he pushed NBC executives to move slowly in unseating her and offered to leave Today if that would stop the viewer backlash.
Though that may be Lauer's perspective, that's not the whole story, according to New York Times reporter Brian Stelter, who has a book on the morning show wars, Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV, to be published April 23.
Stelter uncorked a story today recounting an NBC meeting on Today's ratings that gingerly talked about "connection" with viewers instead of directly referring to Lauer, revealing that his general populaity has nose-dived, forcing the network to bat way rumors he might be replaced.
Some critics say the Today show got complacent, but I would say it differently; they got complacent about Lauer's abilities and likability, counting on his charm and appeal to override decisions which wound up hurting the show. Those self-inflicted wounds came at a time when Today's had been on top so long, some viewers were already considering alternatives.
Nice a person as Curry is, she was never a good fit as a mainline Today show anchor; weakest where the show is most demanding, requiring snappy, pitch-perfect reactions in the moment during live interviews and in host banter.
But when Meredith Vieira surprised the world by leaving the show, NBC wasn't prepared to take a hit and pass Curry over for the job again, counting on Lauer's abilities to help paper over her shortcomings.
Instead, a show that already felt a little staid got worse, while ABC's Good Morning America benefited from the addition of two younger anchors and immense viewer sympathy from anchor Robin Roberts' courageous battle with a blood disorder.
When Roberts' return to GMA coincided with a crucial ratings period, it was obvious which show would win February's "sweeps" ratings battle. As a commenter noted to me on Twitter, these days CBS' morning show is smarter than Today and ABC's GMA is happier (and more vibrant). Doesn't leave lot of middle ground for a show which once dominated morning ratings for 16 years.
In the same way predecessor Bryant Gumbel was hurt by the untimely ouster of co-anchor Jane Pauley and revelations of a tough memo he wrote on Today's shortcomings, Lauer now runs the risk of losing his connection with a morning show audience which is judging him more harshly.
Unthinkable as replacing him seemed a few months ago, the fact that it seems at all plausible now shows that he and NBC have an awful lot of work to do.