Advice to fix 'Today' show mess after Ann Curry's departure

The top morning show faces an uncertain future now that longtime anchor Ann Curry has been sent packing. If the show doesn't right itself, there may be a backlash from its core audience of female viewers.
Published July 1 2012
Updated July 1 2012

As Today begins its first week minus longtime anchor Ann Curry, the morning show that dominated TV ratings for more than 15 years faces a serious crossroads, summed up in two words:

Now what?

Deborah Norville, who was forced off Today back in 1991 amid a public backlash after she succeeded Jane Pauley, wondered whether viewers might make NBC pay for how it ousted Curry, in a bit of "workplace justice."

"It certainly brought back painful memories of when I was similarly twisting in the wind and being subjected to a whispering campaign," noted Norville, who said NBC executives back then kept her from talking to the media and explaining that Pauley asked to leave Today before she took over.

"I find it impossible to believe they couldn't put together a montage of (video) clips from someone who worked on that show, literally, for a generation," said Norville, noting that Curry just got a five-minute, awkward speech to say goodbye. "It was clearly not her choice, or something she was comfortable with or prepared for. Will viewers hold NBC responsible for that?"

Since anchors Katie Couric and Meredith Vieira left the show voluntarily, this is the first time a female anchor has been pushed off in more than two decades.

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. After Friday's Today show ended, NBC announced Guthrie, 40, has been asked to succeed Curry, 55, below. It's a step up from her current role as co-host of Today's third hour, but runs the risk of saddling her with the same viewer backlash that affected Norville.

Back then, 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.

"It appears like this is going to be done in the dead of night," said Norville, speaking before NBC officially announced Guthrie as the show's co-anchor. "Which surprises me."

2 Handle the public relations side of this better. Tampa public relations professional and former local newsman Glenn Selig, below, 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 media with no statements of support hurts everyone. Time to face the media and the public with some painful honesty on what happened, so fans can put it behind them.

3 Upgrade the show. 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 offers similar stuff, which makes Today feel less distinctive. The show needs to turn each telecast into an event again, and exchanging Curry for Guthrie, who has co-hosted the show many times already, won't do it alone.

"It's about evolving and remaining relevant," said Norville, below left, who has anchored the syndicated newsmagazine Inside Edition since 1995. "If you don't evolve, you're like the dinosaurs; you become extinct."

Local band live on 'AGT'

When he left Busch Gardens in 2004 after 28 years as the Tampa theme park's musical director, Desmond Boone remained confident that a new opportunity would come.

But Boone, who organized musicians laid off from the park's funky marching band in 2010 into an independent outfit known as the Distinguished Men of Brass, had no idea that opportunity would come courtesy of a reality TV show.

D'Mo Brass, as the group is also known, made a serious impression during the group's auditions in St. Petersburg for NBC's America's Got Talent, earning space in the show's advertisements and a featured spot on the May 28 episode.

Tonight, viewers will see Boone and his crew compete in the first of AGT's live shows (he promises a routine with singing, dance steps and glow-in-the-dark spats), competing against 47 other acts for a $1 million prize. Anyone who saw the Mystic Sheiks of Morocco at the theme park would have recognized the nine-member group's America's Got Talent audition, which featured a funkified mashup of pop and Latin tunes.

And when the audience at Mahaffey gave the band a standing ovation, Boone was caught off guard.

"This thing is bigger than the band right now, bigger than anything we've ever experienced," said Boone, 60, a onetime member of Florida A&M University's Marching 100 band who came to Tampa for work at Busch Gardens in 1976. "To me, we had already won."

Boone's group won't be the only local competitors. Tampa gymnastic dancer Lindsey Norton also will appear in the program's live shows this month.

After their TV success, Boone allows that losing their Busch Gardens gigs might turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to the band members.

"If they hadn't let us go, we wouldn't be in this position," he said. "So God works in mysterious ways; it all turned out to be to our advantage."