There were issues of both timing and money, but the larger corporate strategy was clear: If ABC could poach Lauer, then Today, NBC’s cash cow, would fall from its perch, Good Morning America would be ascendant, and the entire NBC network would crumple like a house of cards. The ABC deal, in its final form, would feature Lauer in a dual role: co-host of the daytime program with Couric and also as an ABC News personality.
What happened next would color everything that happened after: For a few days in late March, Iger, Zucker, and Sherwood all believed they had been told by both Lauer and his agent, Ken Linder, that Lauer was coming to ABC. In their minds, the deal was done, with only the legalities to be worked out. But the following week, Lauer surprised them all by calling and saying thanks but no thanks. Iger was infuriated, as was Zucker. Sherwood would not soon forget: In the months to come, he would spend an inordinate amount of time poking at Lauer and reveling in Schadenfreude.
Before giving ABC the bad news, Lauer had gone back to NBC and said he was prepared to negotiate a new contract. Lauer has said he remained to help shepherd Today through a tough period, because he cared about the show and the staff—but this act of selflessness was rewarded with a fairly hefty check. Burke agreed to give Lauer more money than any morning-news anchor had ever received in the history of television: a reported $25 million a year to work four days a week.
Lauer says Curry’s name never came up in his contract talks. (Burke declined to comment.) But her fate was already sealed. From top to bottom, Burke, Lauer, Capus, and Bell had all agreed that Curry would be taken off the show, with Today rebuilt around Lauer. At the moment when he had maximum leverage with NBC, Lauer, as the multimillion-dollar megastar, could easily have saved her—but he didn’t. To the contrary, in signing a new contract to remain at the show for at least two more years, he tacitly ratified the plan to remove her. Which doesn’t make him a horrible person—it makes him, for better or worse, a pro.
The week after he re-signed, Lauer appeared on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter with the headline “The Most Powerful Face in News.” Even Lauer saw dark tidings in all this: After seeing the cover line, he told the writer of the story, “You just hung a huge target on my back.”
The previous week, Capus scoffed at the idea that Good Morning America might beat Today, telling a reporter that it was “not going to happen.” The very next week, it did: On April 19, ratings showed that Good Morning America had beaten the Today show by 31,000 viewers, breaking Today’s sixteen-year winning streak. Ben Sherwood and the staff of Good Morning America were overjoyed, throwing a victory party on a rooftop overlooking the Hudson River. That day, Good Morning America’s co-host Robin Roberts was diagnosed with MDS, a cancerlike blood disease. Her health struggles would soon become a televised narrative on ABC, reality again intruding on television.
That same week, Bell went to Curry’s dressing room and told her they needed to consider a new role at NBC. Curry asked Bell how she could improve. About two weeks later, Bell took Curry to lunch at one of his favorite restaurants, La Grenouille, on 52nd Street, where he tried selling her on a new roving correspondent role, complete with her own production unit.
Thus began a series of delicate and painful talks with Curry about her future. From the start, Bell was unequivocal that Curry needed to leave in time for the London Olympics in July. But then there was Capus. Increasingly paranoid about Bell’s power and designs, he began engaging in a series of open-ended conversations with Curry in which he told her that she wasn’t the problem with the show. Instead, Capus said, the show’s programming was flawed; Bell had allowed it to become too soft. Capus fanned Curry’s hope that she could hang on longer and undermined Bell’s strategy of resetting the Today show cast during the Olympics. In early June, an interview with Curry in Ladies’ Home Journal came out saying she saw herself at Today for another five years.
As the internal conversations dragged on for weeks, the tension between Capus and Bell paralyzed NBC. Curry, without an agent, was doing her own bargaining. Her elliptical conversational style was interpreted by some as cunning, others as sheer denial. People from all sides counseled her on what to do, including Tom Brokaw, himself a former Today host.