When Katie Couric departed to CBS to anchor the evening news for $15 million a year, legendary Today show producer Jeff Zucker managed to keep the familial turbulence to a minimum, installing Meredith Vieira, a warm, maternal presence who helped sustain the family dynamic and Today’s ratings lead. Vieira decided to depart in 2011 to spend more time with her ailing husband, which brought the show to a troubling crossroads. Already Today’s ratings advantage was slipping. And Ann Curry was next in line for the job of sitting beside Lauer.
The irony of the current situation is that almost no one with an eye for live television thought that Curry, all things being equal, was a natural for Today’s couch. Curry was a television pro—her emotionally charged reporting on Darfur and Haiti won awards and performed well in the ratings—but that’s a very different skill than making small talk about salad dressing and bantering with Matt Lauer. Wide-eyed and breathless with empathy while interviewing people touched by tragedy, Curry could be awkward and mercurial in the morning happy-talk milieu, her real feelings bursting forth at odd moments. She was considered intensely earnest and somewhat fragile, despite her hard-news chops. In the past, Couric would sometimes tease her about her clothes, remarks that Curry took badly. When Lauer and Today producers tried to “punk” the rest of the cast one morning in 2011—sending them to a fake magazine photo shoot where the photographer had a meltdown and started firing all his assistants—Curry was infuriated with Lauer and retreated to her dressing room. Roker, her longtime friend, was sent to comfort her.
Curry’s contract, negotiated by then–NBC television head Jeff Zucker, stipulated that if she didn’t get the co-anchor job, she could leave the network. She had been passed over the last time, when Vieira was hired. But both Lauer and Jim Bell, the executive producer at the time, were opposed to putting Curry in the co-host chair. Lauer attempted to bring Couric back to NBC, proposing an arrangement where she would co-host Today for a couple of years and do a daytime talk show with Lauer as well. But the network balked over money. So they decided not to make the deal, and after Couric, NBC management simply didn’t have another plan—Ann Curry was the choice by process of elimination. She was installed as co-host of Today in June 2011.
Part of the reason NBC couldn’t come up with a plan B was that, at the time, the network was going through an enormous upheaval. The cable behemoth Comcast had agreed to acquire a majority stake in NBC from longtime owner General Electric, and one of its first acts was to remove Zucker, who had let the prime-time lineup sink to last in the ratings. Steve Burke, a Comcast executive with no experience in TV production, replaced Zucker, and for NBC’s people, managing up became as important as managing down.
Within six months, executive producer Jim Bell had come to the conclusion that Curry wasn’t working out. She frequently stumbled over the words on the teleprompter and her intensity sometimes made her difficult to watch during interviews with tragedy victims. But, more important, Lauer looked awkward and unhappy next to her—a situation that Lauer himself had also diagnosed. He openly complained about her to NBC staffers and to Bell. And the ratings seemed to reflect her struggles.
As Don Nash, the current executive producer, told me about the realities of on-air chemistry: “You can’t fake it for very long that early in the morning. I think viewers have a sixth sense about all that. If your two anchors don’t like each other off the air, they’re not going to be fooled if they love each other on the air.”
In January of last year, rumors began circulating that Curry was on the outs. An unnamed NBC source told New York at the time that if the ratings didn’t improve, Curry could be replaced by NBC’s White House correspondent, Savannah Guthrie. “She’s got that girl-next-door quality,” the person said.
But by that point, it wasn’t simply a matter of unplugging one female host and plugging in another. Curry was a real person now—huge swaths of her audience loved her. That was the point when Today’s drama became three-dimensional, with a highly public insider struggle as counterpoint to the cheerful banter transpiring onscreen. Angered by the report, Curry complained to the public-relations department at NBC. But more leaks came hinting that Curry’s days were numbered. As Good Morning America edged upward in the ratings, Bell told people it was Curry dragging them down. The network was coming under pressure from some of its own affiliates to remove Curry, with general managers complaining in board meetings that she had to go. “Don’t you guys see this?” wrote an influential G.M. from Pittsburgh.