As the post-Curry era begins on Today, my recommendations for fixing NBC's cash cow
(UPDATE: NBC officially named Savannah Guthrie as Today's co-anchor after Friday's program ended. Today's show opened without the traditional announcement introducing the anchors and no acknowledgement of Guthrie's new role.
In the press release, NBC News president Steve Capus complimented Guthrie: “In just a few short years Savannah, has become a standout member of the news division as well as the ultimate team player. She's got an undeniable range, and she’s earned the trust of the news community, her colleagues and our viewers alike.”)
As the Today show begins its first shows minus longtime newsreader-turned-anchor Ann Curry, the morning show which dominated ratings for more than 15 years faces a serious crossroads, summed up in two words:
Curry, overmatched as she was by sitting next to morning television’s golden boy Matt Lauer, was not the only problem the Today show faced. Kicking her off the program into an ill-defined international reporting gig only buys a little time, and risks alienating viewers who actually liked her during her 15-year tenure.
Since anchors Katie Couric and Meredith Vieira left the show voluntarily, this is the first time a female anchor has been pushed off in over 20 years. So before the post-Curry era gets too far along, let me offer a few recommendations on how NBC should go about fixing the mess Today finds itself in right now.
1) Don’t let Savannah Guthrie turn into Deborah Norville. At press time some news outlets are reporting, Guthrie, 40, has been asked to succeed Curry, 55; a step up from her current gig co-hosting Today’s third hour. This is similar to the situation NBC landed in back in 1989, when longtime co-anchor Jane Pauley left Today and was replaced by a younger newcomer, Deborah Norville. The audience felt Pauley got pushed out – morning news draws lots of female viewers who didn’t like seeing a woman who may have paid a price for getting older – and NBC dropped to second place in the ratings. Unless Guthrie (or whomever gets the gig) is introduced to viewers the right way, history could repeat itself in an ugly way.
2) Handle the optics better. Tampa public relations professional and former local newsman Glenn Selig posted an analysis on his website Thursday pronouncing NBC News in a “serious pr and internal crisis” and he’s right. Days of letting a well-liked anchor get pummeled by the press with no statements of support hurt everyone (my pal Tim Goodman at the Hollywood Reporter wrote an amazing column on how this mess reminded him of another botched NBC transition: the failed attempt to switch out Conan O'Brien for Jay Leno on the Tonight Show). Time to face the press and the public with some painful honesty on what happened, so fans and the show can put it behind them.
3) Make each episode an event again. As several critics have noted, Today feels a bit stale these days. Once upon a time, stunts like "Where in the World Is Matt Lauer?" and the outdoor concerts felt like events. But every other morning show now offers similar stuff, which makes Today feel less distinctive.
This is also the drawback in having a deep bench of anchors ready to jump into any role (besides Guthrie, NBC has newsreader Natalie Morales and fourth-hour Today host Hoda Kotb among rumored contenders). Plugging someone who has already been on the show so long into a role they already fulfill often -- Guthrie was co-host on this morning's show, for instance -- means transitions can feel like more of the same. The show needs to turn each telecast into an event again, and exchanging Guthrie -- on someone else in NBC’s stable of anchors in waiting – won’t do it alone.
4) Don’t assume the Olympics will help much. NBC is expecting a big ratings boost from is coverage next month of the Olympic games, and certainly the event will disrupt programming enough that they have an excuse if Curry fans leave the show. But its not much of a reprieve; and while Today executive producer Jim Bell is distracted with helping plans an implement all of NBC’s coverage, his homebase program may suffer.
Here's the tribute video they probably should have shown Thursday for Curry; it actually aired as she replaced Vieira last year, though New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley mistakenly assumed it aired yesterday.