New York magazine has a big piece out today detailing some of the behind-the-scenes palace intrigue that’s gone down at the Today Show. To put it mildly: the set of the Today Show sounds like something out of a Shakespeare play, with lies and betrayal lurking around every corner.
The focus of the piece, naturally, is possible war criminal Matt Lauer, the most hated man in television, and it starts off with an anecdote that clearly illustrates how Lauer knows he is hated and for precisely what reason.
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.”
Cue the entire internet Photoshopping knifes into Matt Lauer’s hands.
Anyway, according to Joe Hagan, the author of the piece, Lauer and Ann Curry didn’t like each other prior to her even becoming co-anchor — “Curry and Lauer had no relationship and barely spoke” — so the on-air marriage of the two was essentially doomed before it even began. But things really began to unravel when it was apparently falsely leaked to the New York Times that Curry was getting the ax — it was the match that lit the fire, it seems.
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.
Compounding matters was the fact that Curry was traditionally more, well, serious and rigid than the gig of Today Show host often requires one to be.
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.
When the show’s ratings started to decline, NBC execs sought to pin the blame on Curry, though internal research showed that it was actually Lauer who was the problem.
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.
Finally, probably the only person who comes away in a positive light in the massive piece is noted sharter Al Roker.
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.”
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.”
Meanwhile, this morning Today aired an interview with Jerry Sandusky — “in his own words” — that was conducted by a right-wing kook. So there you go.