The millions of viewers tuning in to watch NBC’s prime-time coverage of the Winter Olympics in Sochi have, over the past three nights, been greeted by an odd sight. Rather than the familiar and comforting face of Bob Costas, they have instead had Today-show host Matt Lauer — and his beard — navigating them between Olympic events. As a substitute for Costas, says a former Today-show producer, “Matt was the natural choice. He’s an excellent live broadcaster, he likes sports, and he’s a famous face. It puts him in the spotlight again.”
This morning, after hosting a third straight round of prime-time coverage, he turned around to anchor the flagging Today show. But he won’t be going back to the studio this evening. NBC has announced that Lauer would pass the baton to Meredith Vieira for the Friday evening prime-time broadcast. “I can’t do this schedule for a prolonged period of time,” he said.
Lauer has presided over the money-minting Today show for almost a dozen years. The recent ones have been very unhappy, and so the opportunity to showcase himself and his broadcasting talent in prime time is fortunate. His reputation has suffered enormously since NBC sacked his popular former co-anchor Ann Curry, and he got a heap of the blame from the public.
Lauer’s prime-time stint is an indication that, despite a front-page New York Times report last year that he wouldn’t sign another contract with NBC, he is likely to re-up his reported $25-million-a-year contract, perhaps as early as this spring. Network executives have nowhere else to go. “You can’t beat a horse with no horse,” says former NBC News president Richard Wald. “They’ll keep everyone until they determine what is wrong and who would be better.” So when it comes to burnishing his reputation, Lauer needs all the help he can get.
Lauer may be the highest-paid personality on television, which is ironic given that he has presided over and was largely blamed for the Today show’s implosion in 2012. The show cratered at the same time as Lauer scored an enormous raise, and that’s in part because of the fear of what could happen if Lauer left. Could the bottom really fall out? Executive fortunes at NBC News rise and fall on the success of the Today show, and making a bold decision to cut Lauer loose rather than pay him an outrageous salary could very well have cost top executives their jobs.
NBC’s efforts to revive the flagging Today show have met with little success, however, and the program continues to reach humiliating new lows. On Tuesday, the second day of the Sochi Olympics, ABC’s Good Morning America topped Today even though NBC is carrying the Olympics. It marks the first time since the beginning of electronic ratings that a morning show on a network that did not carry the Olympics won the ratings war. NBC News president Deborah Turness last month reassigned Alex Wallace, the executive in charge of Today, to oversee the network’s Washington bureau, and she is openly looking for Wallace’s successor.
On Thursday morning, the show’s coverage veered toward the comical. Though NBC goes to great lengths to put a happy face on the Olympics (last week it referred to the Soviet Union as “one of modern history’s pivotal experiments”), Today’s four co-hosts looked into the camera with furrowed brows as they received a phone report from environmental-affairs correspondent Anne Thompson about an injured Olympics worker. “We’re going to give you a little more on that breaking news at the Olympic venue here in Sochi, a worker hit by a sled during a training run. NBC’s Anne Thompson is with us now on the phone just making her way to that sliding center,” Lauer announced. As they listened to the report, Lauer and his colleagues, Savannah Guthrie, Al Roker, and Natalie Morales, awkwardly faced the camera with concerned looks.
Today’s Olympics flop underscores broader problems with the program. One and a half years into her stint as co-host, the forgettable Savannah Guthrie has yet to connect with viewers. At the same time, the two people that the network has all too openly considered to replace Lauer, Willie Geist and Carson Daly, have fallen flat. Private overtures to Ryan Seacrest and Anderson Cooper also appear to have fizzled.
A source close to the show says that Lauer has soured on Guthrie as a co-host and has shared his disappointment with colleagues. But nobody believes that he is trying to get her removed. That doesn’t make her position any less precarious. NBC News brass, including president Deborah Turness, are also down on Guthrie, whose cautious approach to the job has prevented her from making an impression on viewers. A Today show spokeswoman calls those claims “total garbage.”
What is indisputable is that, instead of letting her edgy and quick-witted personality shine through, Guthrie, perhaps in an attempt to avoid Curry’s fate, has been content to play Lauer’s sidekick. Though she holds a law degree from Georgetown University and made her name as a trial correspondent for Court TV, at Today she has done little coverage of that nature. Former NBC News president Steve Capus pulled the show away from covering lurid crimes, and Lauer has spoken about his distaste for that sort of coverage, which is a staple of morning television — except, that is, these days on the Today show.
There are rumblings that Guthrie could be replaced by 10 a.m. anchor Hoda Kotb, though some observers question whether dispensing with another female co-anchor would elicit a backlash similar to the one that the network prompted when it dismissed Ann Curry. That’s unlikely, because Guthrie doesn’t have the same relationship with viewers that Curry did. “She just doesn’t do anything for anyone,” says the former Today producer. “She has no name recognition, nothing.”
Among the hosts — Lauer, Guthrie, Al Roker, and Natalie Morales, plus an expanding ensemble cast including Willie Geist and Carson Daly plus Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford — the glumness is palpable. “None of them . . . look like particularly happy campers, and when [former Today-show co-host] Meredith [Vieira] is around, well, the difference is clear,” says former NBC News producer Steven Reiner. (Vieira, whose talk show NBC is set to launch next year, continues to make frequent appearances on Today.) A spokeswoman for the show says, “The show’s anchors, and its producers and executives, couldn’t be more positively engaged with each other and the program content.”
Meanwhile, as Lauer presided over the Olympics on Tuesday and Wednesday, viewers savaged his new look. “Blind Bob Costas > Healthy Matt Lauer,” wrote one viewer. “If there’s anyone I dislike more than Bob Costas . . . it’s Matt Lauer,” wrote another. “This beard makes Matt Lauer look like he has given up,” said a third. Slate chronicled the snarky tweets under the headline “Matt Lauer steps in for Bob Costas. Viewers did not like his beard.” In the wake of Curry’s dismissal, when viewers bombarded @MLauer with vicious messages, the anchor reportedly vowed that he would “never look at Twitter again.”
Lauer’s beard, which he began sporting in November as part of an initiative, known as “Movember,” intended to raise awareness about men’s-health issues, feels like an attempt at reinvention. “We’re trying to get people to tune in and say, ‘Wow they look awful, but hey, I should get checked out,’” he said in November.
The reinvention recalls Al Gore’s transformation in the wake of his loss to George W. Bush in the 2000 election. He faded from public view, growing a beard that even Chris Matthews announced made him like a “Bolshevik labor organizer.” The powers that be at NBC are certainly hoping that Lauer’s efforts to revive his career, and along with it NBC’s flagship show, fare better than the former vice president’s.
— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review.