Morning television is a very strange business. While many thinking people shrug it off as tabloid garbage and wonder Why should I care?, millions of others watch it religiously and consider the casts family, making the programs invaluable cash cows for the networks. That tension — between the brutish money-making side and the need to stay lovable — is at the center of the new book Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV by New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter.
A similar divide is also at play in Stelter’s writing, which oscillates between dishy gossip, as in the breakdown of Ann Curry’s dismissal from Today or asides about Lauer’s rumored infidelity, and wonky, straight-talking dissections of ratings and producer rivalries. A tepid review in the Times called the book “a breezy read with more than a little overblown prose, some of it just plain silly,” and noted the author’s “own aggressively descriptive writing.” That’s something of an understatement. Like a.m. programming, Stelter’s bursts of giddy flair may be divisive, so we’ve collected a sampling. Below are some of the wildest moments.
On Today producer Jim Bell’s Ann Curry epiphany (page 3):
So it was with a sense of welling satisfaction, and a growing warmth that spread through his broad bosom like the aftereffect of a double jigger of single malt scotch, taken at the end of one of those five-hundred-dollar TV executive lunches that we’re told don’t happen anymore, but most certainly do, at places like La Grenouille and the Four Seasons, every damn day, that a certain producer at NBC came to the realization, in January 2012, that he did after all know how to steer that tsunami-tossed cruise ship of a television enterprise known as the Today show into smoother seas.
Yes. He. Jim Bell. Had. The. Answer.
On morning show changes over time (page 13):
What’s truly interesting about this proliferating panoply is not so much that it came into existence — the whole world is breaking down into niches — but that the very numerousness of the options worked to alter the nature of morning TV shows, institutions that have always seen themselves as being in the familiarity industry, and thus have historically been about as open to change as your average seventy-six-year-old Roman Catholic cardinal. Consider, gentle reader, that it’s been time to see, in the immortal words of Al Roker, “what’s happening in your neck of the woods, for sixty friggin’ years now.
On realizing a shift in the industry (page 17):
If in 2011 the Today show was a classic New York City department store, it would have been B. Altman’s at the moment when the smartest person then working at that storied Fifth Avenue emporium looked out upon the teeming sales floor and realized that the world had shifted beneath the retail business and something was deeply and horribly wrong.
On the importance of morning programming to networks (page 18):
It’s important at every stretch of the daily schedule, but as the pros: if you don’t have it in the morning, when the research shows that viewers want to smell the coffee and feel the warmth and hear the happy banter that happens when the highly paid stars are aligned, it doesn’t matter what else you’re toting, pardoner. You’re Richard Nixon in 1960, you’re Big Brown in the Belmont, you’re CBS.
On chemistry (page 20):
Curry’s on-air comebacs to Lauer during her first month as cohost were just plain weird — the conversational Hacky Sack often fell thudding to the rug or, figuratively speaking, wound up in the saucepan put out for Al Roker’s cooking segment.
On Matt Lauer’s decline (page 52):
Actually, the dark clouds had been gathering above the gleaming Lauerdome for years.
On Good Morning America (page 103):
How different it feels to stroll through the Forest of Happy Hosts — Look, there’s George Stephanopoulos! — and imbibe the atmosphere in a place that, like the New York Mets, Garfunkel, and Avis, was born to finish second.
On the competition between the two shows (page 113):
For the mid-seventies, when GMA was born, until the mid-nineties, the two main morning TV shows were like gaily colored merry-go-round horses moving side by side. Their crazy-eyed expressions remained frozen but their positions constantly changed. When one was high, the other was low. […] And the one day one of the carousel steeds turned into Secretariat and galloped right off the ride.
On the old days (page 114):
It was played, in one very important way, like chess. If you look at the morning show record from back in those less-diverse days you’ll see there was a direct connection between Nielsen success and how well you managed your blondes. Protect the queen!
On ABC producer Ben Sherwood (page 121):
Sherwood was the sort of executive producer who thought, like a dogfighting World War II pilot, that victory would always go to the guy who could withstand the g-forces of sleeplessness the longest, and thus not pass out before his adversary did as they plunged around the wild blue yonder.
On 2011 (page 149):
…you had at GMA a master alchemist mixing together a uniquely televisable team of personalities assembled not just to keep the show going as best they could, but to take back the top spot in the ratings after sixteen years. Simultaneously you had the Today show seemingly trying to help GMA toward its audacious goal by first propping up and then plotting to tear down Ann Curry as if she were a statue of Saddam Hussein.
On Charlie Rose (page 167):
But any focus group worth its salty snacks would chew him up and spit him out in a Paramus, New Jersey (the Paris of focus groups), minute, for he has virtually nothing in common with the flyover-country ladies who make up the bulk of his potential parishioners. Like the jazz musician who was asked to get up early for that famous photograph “A Great Day in Harlem,” Rose seems unaware that there are two ten o’clocks.
On the battle between the networks (page 185):
Of all the great battles in history, the one the morning show wars of the last few years most closely resembled was the Rumble in the Jungle, the fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974.
On NBC’s desperation (page 257):
NBC needed the Olympics the way Smokin’ Joe Frazier needed the final bell in the Thrilla in Manila, the way George Washington needed nightfall in the Battle of Brooklyn.