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.”
If Matt Lauer doesn’t want to be seen with sharp knives, it’s because last summer his co-host Ann Curry was discovered with one in her back. She was swiftly replaced by a younger, more genial woman, Savannah Guthrie. Ever since, Lauer has been the prime suspect in Curry’s virtual demise. Five million viewers, the majority of them women, would not soon forget how Curry, the intrepid female correspondent and emotionally vivid anchor, spent her last appearance on the Today show couch openly weeping, devastated at having to leave after only a year. The image of Matt Lauer trying to comfort her—and of Curry turning away from his attempted kiss—has become a kind of monument to the real Matt Lauer, forensic evidence of his guilt.
The truest truism of morning-TV shows is that they are like families, or aspire to be—it’s a matter of practiced artifice, faked from the first minute to the last. But reality can’t always be kept out of the picture.
On Curry’s final day, Lauer realized the scene was catastrophic even as cameras rolled. “I think we all knew it at that moment,” says Lauer during an interview with his current co-hosts, Al Roker, Natalie Morales, and Guthrie. “And it just seemed like something—there was nothing we could do as it was happening, and we all felt bad about it.”
What followed was the implosion of the most profitable franchise in network television. After sixteen years as the No. 1 morning show in America, Today was worth nearly half a billion dollars a year in advertising revenue to NBC, the bedrock of its business. In the aftermath of the Curry debacle, the show lost half a million viewers and ceded first place in the ratings war to ABC’s Good Morning America, losing millions of dollars overnight.
Blamed in the press for his co-host’s offing, Lauer has watched helplessly as his reputation gets battered week after week. When Chelsea Handler joked to him on Today earlier this month, “You have a worse reputation than I do,” Lauer’s smile sharpened into something that wouldn’t make it past airport security.
The producers of Today are employing every trick they know to rebuild the family’s chemistry, retooling the set, fiddling with the mix of stories, going for more uplift and smiles. But the show is still haunted by what happened, and is still happening, offscreen, the internal struggles and animosities casting strange shadows. Matt Lauer smiles for a living, but offstage he has been obsessed with the situation, brooding about his ratings and his enemies while trying to put forward his own version of events. If Lauer is guilty in the hosticide of Ann Curry (he’s certainly not innocent), he’s far from the only guilty party. For all the smiles, TV hosts often get offed, for all sorts of reasons. As Hyman Roth said in Godfather 2: This is the business they’ve chosen.
What had separated Today from its competitors in its decades as the No. 1 morning show was a natural-seeming chemistry between its anchors. The cast of Matt Lauer, Katie Couric, Al Roker, and Ann Curry was once marketed as “America’s First Family,” a morning-news analog to NBC’s prime-time megahit Friends. As the sturdy straight man, Lauer bonded with women by showing he could bake a cake with the same ease with which he could grill a politician, then effortlessly josh with the avuncular Al Roker, the jovial weatherman, for comic relief. It looked real. For a while, it was.
NBC was highly protective of its No. 1 perch in the morning. The pressure was intense; the network fired producers over internal squabbling or when the ratings dipped. In 2005, Good Morning America nearly overtook Today under the direction of a fiercely competitive executive producer named Ben Sherwood, who came within 45,000 viewers of erasing Today’s winning streak. In the days before the ratings results, Lauer was nerve-racked about Today’s prospects. Sherwood viewed the rivalry as pure warfare. “They’ve got all their big guns out,” he said at the time. “They will fight most fiercely. We will fight most fiercely.”