There's trouble brewing at NBC's Today show: With a mix of news, human interest and silliness, Matt Lauer and his cohorts used to be America's number one choice each morning. Now Today has dropped in popularity and ABC's Good Morning America sits on top. What happened? Well, a lot. A lot happened.
There is no other program I have watched as long as I have watched the Today Show. It's been decades. Since I was a kid. Tom Brokaw, Bryant Gumbel, Jane Pauley, Al Roker, Matt Lauer, Katie Couric, Ann Curry, Meredith Vieira, that old coot Willard Scott. Day in, day out, for hours: The "news" and some other completely absurd and unnecessary features (this morning it was an earth-shattering story about why Americans drink lots of coffee; an "expert" actually explained that coffee has caffeine in it). Despite the years of viewing, and the fact that most of the time I see the shiny anchors' faces more often than I see my own damn family, my feelings about the show are equal parts love and loathe: It's informative yet beyond cheesy, somehow completely behind the times while staying on top of the latest. For a while, I was deeply convinced that Ann Curry was The Worst™ — a horrible interviewer and awkward person. But something crazy happened after Ann Curry left: Today got even WORSE. Embarrassing attempts at "viral" videos, a steady stream of new, bland people, a horrible, unmoderated, free-for-all segment called Take 3 that's basically like being forced to listen to some strangers having a loud conversation on a bus and makes me want to stick pencils in my ears so that I never have to hear that brand of insipid chitchat again.
Brian Stelter keeps a very close eye on the morning shows, and in today's New York Times, he explains:
Ms. Curry has been gone for nine months, yet "Today" is still losing to ABC's "Good Morning America" by about 800,000 total viewers a day. (In the 25-to-54-year-old group, it is losing by fewer than 100,000 viewers.) The ratings are scrutinized now by NBC and ABC for signs that "Today" is stronger on the days when Mr. Lauer is on vacation.
Yes, that brings us to Lauer. What is there to say about Lauer that hasn't already been spat by Tom Cruise. (Glib!) I actually don't hate Matt Lauer; I think he's smart, a good reporter, a great interviewer, and game when it comes to the silly stuff (i.e. J.Lo Halloween costume). But apparently I'm alone in this:
Mr. Lauer's Q Score — a measure of likability, treated as gospel by the TV industry - has fallen by more than half since he was paired with Ms. Curry in June 2011. It was a 19 that September; by this January it was a 9.
The problem, of course, is that when Curry left the show, it seemed like Lauer was the one kicking her out the door. If the Today show is a family — and that's how NBC wants you to think of them — then Matt is the Dad. (Meredith was the Fun Mom, who sadly had to leave.) Ann Curry was your Other Mom, the goofy, means-well whispers-too-much mom who just happens to be buddy-buddy with the Dalai Lama (whom she treats like a child). When Dad kicks your Other Mom out of the house, well, the kids get mad at dad, have no mom, feel bad for mom, miss mom, get confused, start to rebel. It doesn't help that while Ann Curry was getting the boot, rumors about Matt Lauer's IRL marriage crumbling bubbled up. Stelter points out:
But something more happened on Ms. Curry's last day, June 28: seemingly every negative word ever uttered about Mr. Lauer was reprised. While he stayed silent, tabloid Web sites reran old items about his personal life and blogs said he was undeserving of his contract. All of this is still searchable on Google. The top 10 searches for his name include "divorce," "salary," "Ann Curry," and "fired."
To be clear: He's not divorced. But it certainly feels like he stays the golden boy as he burns through female partners, which is kind of a shitty persona for "Dad" to have. Curry and Vieira's departures were both sad, but the new anchor, Savannah Guthrie, feels like a weird stepmom we're supposed to like, but can't, somehow. Smiley, sweet, inert, but not your real family. When Today hit a sweet spot — when Meredith and Matt were the main event, with Ann and Al playing sideshow BFFs like Jack and Karen — the formula worked. It was the right balance of snappy, savvy, smart and silly. Today is not really real news. It's a show, with a script to read and roles to play. You have to put on a show. Right now, Savannah Guthrie is trying really hard and going through the motions of peppy morning show host. But she is way too smart (she has a J.D. from Georgetown, where she graduated Magna Cum Laude) and weirdly awkward to be subjected to the dum-dum ideas Today forces upon its cast. When they mock her for her fear of frogs, it feels like mean boys teasing a girl for daring to set foot in their clubhouse, not the family bonding or "connection" NBC desperately wants (and needs) to foster.
The question is: Does Matt Lauer need to go? Rumor has it he might be replaced with the affable Willie Geist or hard-nosed dance enthusiast David Gregory. Goodbye old dad, hello new dads. Or goodbye to a father figure in general. Maybe it's time to grow up, leave the nest, and not rely on having news spoon-fed to us by a soothing older man. Even if Lauer doesn't leave, as Stelter writes, NBC could just add another cast member, which "would make Today more of an ensemble show, seemingly less dependent on his star power." It would certainly be the end of an era to see Lauer — who's been sitting in the co-host chair since 1997 — not part of the morning lineup. Because the truth is, the concept of anchors might be what needs to go. The formula — one man, one woman (often one of them a racial minority, just to cover more bases) delivering news along with playful banter — might just be tired. Evening news programming revolves around one host (Brian Williams, Anderson Cooper, Rachel Maddow, Jon Stewart, in a way) interacting with guests, experts and on-scene reporters. More and more the Today show feels like a cavalcade of "personalities," each one louder and more opinionated than the next (yes, Donnie Deutsch, talking to you), which is not the most soothing, interesting, informative or entertaining way to wake up in the morning.
As one commenter on the Times site writes:
If the producers stop trying to build these programs around simpering hosts and phony bonhomie and give the viewers something more challenging they may get better ratings. Its all too prescriptive. On German morning programs they have a roster of presenters that they mix up morning by morning giving the viewers something different each day. The idea that 2 people are the "anchors" is so outdated.
Another puts it this way:
I haven't watched any of the three broadcast morning shows in years.
I read The New York Times.
Silence + knowledge in the morning is a beautiful thing.
Just don't get rid of Hoda Kotb, I fucking love that woman.