But internal research conducted by a company called SmithGeiger showed something different: When Lauer was onscreen with Curry, it was Lauer who became less appealing to viewers, not Curry. “He was looking aloof, a little bit holier-than-thou, and pompous,” says a former NBC executive who viewed the reports. “He was becoming Bryant Gumbel.” (Gumbel, Lauer’s close friend and frequent golf partner, left Today with a similar reputation.)
It was obvious to Bell and others that Lauer wasn’t trying hard enough to make it work with Curry because he simply didn’t like her. Off air, Curry and Lauer had no relationship and barely spoke. When she started, Curry had asked Lauer out for lunch to get advice, but Lauer seemed to drag his feet scheduling it and Curry felt he didn’t offer much. With Couric and Vieira, Lauer could be an easygoing straight man; with Curry, who threw off his rhythm and also threatened his dominance of the hard-news stories, he could often look sour.
By early last year, Lauer seemed to his colleagues to be growing more and more disgruntled. He began getting more involved in the daily story lineup, getting into fights with producers and tearing the show up in the early-morning hours. He made it clear to friends that he was miserable with Curry and uncomfortable with his corporate masters at Comcast. He spoke often of downsizing his work life, playing more golf, spending more time with his kids in the Hamptons.
Lauer’s unhappiness was evident to Bell. A former Harvard football player with a garrulous personality, Bell was ascendant at NBC, a 45-year-old acolyte of the legendary sports producer Dick Ebersol. In addition to running Today, Bell had been named executive producer of NBC’s Olympics coverage (Comcast paid $4.4 billion for the rights to broadcast the Games through 2020). Consequently, Bell had special entrée to Steve Burke, the NBCUniversal president who had been deeply involved in cutting the Olympics deal. In the months leading up to Lauer’s contract decision, Bell began talking with Burke about the future of Today. How could they keep Matt Lauer from leaving NBC? And what about Ann Curry?
But this is where it gets complicated. Technically speaking, Bell’s direct boss was Steve Capus, president of NBC News, who’d risen to power as the aggressive producer of Nightly News. Capus was involved in some of those conversations and agreed that Curry was a problem. But that wasn’t Capus’s only issue. He was rankled by Bell’s close relationship with Burke, worrying that Bell was consolidating power and angling to replace him. The two jockeyed for control over the Curry situation, sending mixed messages and sowing confusion, which made the trouble much harder to resolve.
Flirting With the Enemy
Lauer’s version of events is that Steve Capus came to him in late February and said Curry was going to be removed from the Today show, regardless of whether Lauer left or not. Lauer says he expressed trepidation about the move, fearing it would hurt the show. But the ratings were softening, and the trend lines showed Good Morning America poised to overtake Today if they didn’t change course.
But Capus’s statement was not the crucial inflection point in Curry’s departure. Rather, it 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, so the statement was as much a promise as it was a threat: If he stayed, Curry would be gone.
And at the moment they informed him of Curry’s exit, Lauer himself appeared halfway out the door. Three months earlier, Lauer had been angered by a press leak that Capus and Bell were talking to Ryan Seacrest about possibly replacing him. (Lauer learned of the leak while being forced to stand outside the security gate at the White House Christmas party because Ann Curry had forgotten her driver’s license.) In trying to placate Lauer, Burke had given him a window to explore other jobs, but they made it clear that Seacrest was really just an insurance policy; they didn’t want Lauer to leave. But Lauer, possibly as a negotiating tactic, was taking leaving pretty seriously. He’d begun working closely with Zucker to develop an idea for ABC: the Katie Couric daytime talk show with Matt Lauer—together again. Lauer met with Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney, ABC’s parent company, who made a strong effort to recruit Lauer.
Prominently featured in these talks was the president of ABC News, Ben Sherwood, the tall, arch-browed former producer of Good Morning America. Fond of using epic historical analogies to describe business maneuvers, Sherwood had risen to the top of ABC News and was now eager to peel Lauer away from Today and finally beat his arch-rival.