Book Review: Brian Stelter's Top of the Morning adds new depth to story of TV's morning show wars
At age 27, Brian Stelter is something of a media journalism prodigy.
While still in school, he built a blog on the TV news business, TVNewser.com, that earned a shout- out from NBC News anchor Brian Williams, along with feature stories in USA Today and the New York Times — where he landed a job as a media reporter fresh out of college.
All of which explains the anticipation surrounding his first book, Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV. Positioned as an in-depth look at the most profitable corner of network TV news, it really offers a blow-by-blow account of how ABC's Good Morning America supplanted NBC's Today as the most-watched morning newscast.
Along the way, Stelter dishes on the biggest recent scandal in TV news: how Today co-anchor Ann Curry was ousted from her position in one of the messiest demotions ever seen on live television.
For media nerds, this is a slice of gossipy, insider-filled heaven, noting that former Today executive producer Jim Bell gave his plan to oust Curry a name, "Operation Bambi." (According to Stelter, a friend had once asked the producer if firing Curry would be like killing that famous animated woodland creature; in the New York Times magazine excerpt of his book, readers are told Bell denies using the term.)
Readers learn that, after news broke that NBC was pushing Curry off Today, she and top-dog anchor Matt Lauer led the next day's broadcast without speaking to each other off camera. (Hoda Kotb, co-anchor of the show's frothy fourth hour, had been asked to sit in for Curry in a plan that was ultimately axed.) For some time after GMA anchor Robin Roberts knew she had a rare blood disorder, she only told a few producers and her closest friend among the show's anchors, weather forecaster Sam Champion; and according to Stelter, Bell had even once considered poaching Roberts for Today.
Stelter notes the world of morning TV can be a pressure cooker of clashing influences. There are hosts with multimillion-dollar salaries bossed around by producers making much less, competition for guests so extreme one booker bragged of sleeping with a trial witness to get an interview, and the distorting effects of sleep deprivation on people whose work hours require rising at 2 or 3 a.m. every day.
And these shows, the book notes, essentially fund the rest of the news division, earning about $10 million in revenue for every hundred thousand viewers who show up at 7 a.m. In Today's case, that totaled half a billion dollars at the show's height.
This may not mean much to casual viewers who have already shrugged off a.m. news programs as too stuffed with tabloid news and cushy lifestyle segments to be relevant.
But for fans of the form, it may feel a bit like seeing your parents in their underwear. TV anchors usually presented to the public as a comfortable blend of morning pals, authority figures and family members are given a more human face by a reporter who digs deep for the dishy backstory.
Stelter had the good fortune to start on his book — its morning TV focus was his editor's idea — as Curry was taking over Today, along with former ESPN anchor Josh Elliot, and ex-Insider host Lara Spencer joining Good Morning America.
He landed the best seats in the house for epic transitions in morning TV, from Curry's ouster to the end of more than 850 weeks of ratings dominance by Today, the damage Lauer's image took as fans blamed him for Operation Bambi and the ascension of their rival, Good Morning America.
Stelter makes some interesting and important points here, noting that morning TV is a product designed for a mostly female audience by a bunch of powerful, controlling men. Small wonder Curry began to feel persecuted when Operation Bambi proceeded, as Bell allegedly assembled a video of her worst on-air gaffes and control room staffers poked fun at her clothing choices. (Tellingly, once she was gone, NBC owner Comcast ousted Bell and tasked two women to supervise overhauling Today.)
Where Stelter stumbles is when his prose veers from straightforward reporting to New York-flavored media snark. Lines that seem calibrated to produce derisive snorts of mirth from people who work in media (or eat up media coverage in the New York Post, POLITICO and BuzzFeed) fall a bit flat in a cascade of run-on sentences and strained metaphors.
The book's second sentence, in fact, is 102 words long, including: "So it was with a sense of welling satisfaction, and a growing warmth that spread through his broad bosom like the aftereffect of a double jigger of single malt scotch, taken at the end of one of those five-hundred-dollar TV executive lunches that we're told don't happen anymore, but most certainly do, at places like La Grenouille and the Four Seasons, every damn day, that a certain producer at NBC came to the realization…."
It feels like a mistake made while writing too quickly, rushing to produce a book while the incidents observed remain relevant.
There's also an error; Stelter wrote that new CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker paired former ABC anchor Chris Cuomo and former CNBC anchor Erin Burnett for a new morning show. But despite that rumor, Zucker instead named a different CNN staffer, Kate Bolduan, as Cuomo's on-air partner (Stelter, who has a Tumblr page filled with updates connected to the book, writes there that CNN didn't officially announce Bolduan until after his book went to press).
Top of the Morning's impact may also have been blunted by a detailed story in New York magazine on Curry's ouster, published nearly a month before Stelter's book.
That same story calls Stelter, who first broke news of the plan to move Curry off Today, Lauer's "nemesis," a tag the reporter resists. The author admits Curry and Lauer declined interview requests after she left the show; he has better access for GMA's story of triumph and Roberts' victory over her blood disease, more glowing, positive stories.
Still, the book offers the most in-depth look yet at TV changes often written about but little understood, bolstered with extensive reporting and a media wonk's eye for context.
Wonder what Stelter will unleash on us all when he finally turns 30?