The family drama at NBC’s Today show, as detailed by Joe Hagan in New York last month, gets another close, gossip-and-backstabbing-filled examination today from The New York Times Magazine. In the excerpt from Brian Stelter’s forthcoming book Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV, the plot again swirls around the show’s ratings slide after a legendary run atop its rival Good Morning America, and the panicked pushing out of co-host Ann Curry less than a year after she took the spot she’d been pining for. From where Curry was sitting, a savage tone behind the scenes and a complicit Matt Lauer were her undoing.
When Curry took over for Meredith Vieira in 2011, Stelter reports, it was because NBC’s money-maker feared losing Lauer:
…the fundamental reason Curry got the job had nothing to do with either her ambition or what the men who ran “Today” thought. […] Lauer’s contract was set to expire at the end of 2012, and there was considerable uncertainty about whether he wanted to stay at “Today.” If Vieira left, and Curry was passed over again, she could exercise her right to run to a competitor. Then if Lauer left a year later, “Today” risked an existential crisis. It might have sounded like a paranoid chain reaction, but it was also a terrifying possibility. […] Curry had to stay in case Lauer didn’t.
But it was a disaster right away: “Curry felt that the boys’ club atmosphere behind the scenes at Today undermined her from the start, and she told friends that her final months were a form of professional torture.”
At one point, the executive producer, Jim Bell, commissioned a blooper reel of Curry’s worst on-air mistakes. Another time, according to a producer, Bell called staff members into his office to show a gaffe she made during a cross-talk with a local station. (Bell denies both incidents.) Then several boxes of Curry’s belongings ended up in a coat closet, as if she had already been booted off the premises. One staff person recalled that “a lot of time in the control room was spent making fun of Ann’s outfit choices or just generally messing with her.”
Bell decided she had to go, no matter what:
One morning-TV veteran suggested to him that firing Curry, who had been co-hosting for only about six months at that point, would be tantamount to “killing Bambi.” Undeterred, Bell hatched a careful three-part plan: 1.) persuade Lauer to extend his expiring contract; 2.) oust Curry; 3.) replace her with Savannah Guthrie. According to this source, Bell called his plan Operation Bambi. […] (Bell denies using the term “Operation Bambi.”)
And he got the support he needed. Working with Bell on Operation Bambi were NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke and, eventually, Matt Lauer, who reportedly told an assistant, “I can’t believe I am sitting next to this woman.” What happened next confirms Hagan’s story that Curry’s departure “was part of a careful dance over Lauer’s future at NBC. Lauer was the franchise, and his views on Curry were already well known […] If he stayed, Curry would be gone.” Stelter reports:
According to a source with direct knowledge of the conversation, Burke told Lauer, “We need to sign you so we can do Ann.” Burke, who had to be keenly aware of Lauer’s discomfort with Curry, was basically scratching her off his list of reservations. (As a top NBC executive said to me after the fact, “Matt’s decision guided everything else.”) Burke even offered Lauer a signing bonus of several million dollars, according to the same person, to decide swiftly.
Lauer signed, Curry signed off with a now-infamous tearful good-bye, and the ratings sank further, but not before Today celebrated: “Mere hours after Curry’s signoff, Bell took his top producers to Brasserie Ruhlmann, a Rockefeller Plaza restaurant that often doubled as a high-end NBC cafeteria. One observer said that he led the group in raising wineglasses to toast her departure. The next day [Savannah] Guthrie’s appointment would be announced. Operation Bambi was complete.” But her ghost continues to haunt them.