It finally dawned on Lauer and the NBC brain trust that the blowback from pushing out Curry might be worse than any gains they anticipated. Lauer began to do damage control. Over lunch at The Four Seasons, he advised Curry to get an agent so she could resolve her situation and openly worried that the timing of her exit would lead people to believe he’d forced her out during his contract negotiation. Lauer says he told NBC management that Curry’s exit was “a disaster waiting to happen” and argued that they needed to wait until after the Olympics, as Capus was now advising.
But even after Curry hired the Washington lawyer and master negotiator Robert Barnett, the talks dragged on without resolution. Meanwhile, ratings pressure was mounting. A year into Curry’s tenure as co-host, NBC lost half a million viewers while ABC gained on them. And on June 11, ABC News announced publicly that Robin Roberts was sick.
What finally forced a resolution was not an agreement between Ann Curry and NBC but a leak to reporter Brian Stelter of the New York Times that Curry was being forced off the Today show. Stelter, an ambitious reporter and hyperactive Twitter star who once interviewed for a job at NBC, was a hovering presence in the morning-TV world as he worked on a forthcoming book called Top of the Morning, which promised to be the definitive account of what was happening at Today. Fingers began pointing over the leak. Was it Jim Bell trying to force Curry’s hand? Was it a negotiating tactic by Curry’s lawyer? (Stelter, for his part, says it was not Camp Curry.) Lauer assured his booker, “My hands are clean.” Bell considered pulling Curry off the air, waiting till the evening to decide whether she could appear on television the next day. The following morning, Curry was discovered crying in her dressing room before airtime.
For a few days, Curry spoke to no one. The set was funereal. Curry was mad at Bell, Bell was angry with Curry, and Capus was angry at Bell. The next week, a deal was finally hammered out: Curry would get $12 million, and her own production unit at NBC, to leave Today. The day before her last morning, Curry wrote her own copy, telling Capus she wanted to “speak from the heart.” That same night, Lauer called in to ask, “So when am I taking my cyanide pill tomorrow?
The events of the following morning are now the stuff of television infamy. Along with Bell, Burke was in the control room. When the time came to say good-bye, Curry broke down and wept as she read the script, her eyes red and swollen, appearing to recoil from a visibly shaken Lauer.
Some at NBC believed Curry purposefully self-destructed to damage both Lauer and the show, with one producer describing it as the morning-show equivalent of Curry “strapping on C4” explosives. But few dispute that her emotional state was real. After she left the set at 30 Rock, she got into a car on 48th Street and was driven to the airport to catch a flight to California. She cried the entire way.
After the Divorce
“We’re lawyered up!” yells Al Roker as he and the current cast of the Today show—Lauer, Guthrie, and Morales—walk into a small greenroom at 30 Rock and pull up chairs in a tight semicircle for an interview.
They’re accompanied by two public-relations handlers and the two top producers, Don Nash and Alexandra Wallace. This is the way they want to appear: the way a family would, a unified front.
“I think that was a hard day for everyone who cares about this show,” says a nervous Guthrie. “All of us … feel connected to what happened … and feel it really personally.”
“Yeah, it was ... painful,” ventures Roker, a longtime friend of Curry’s. “And anytime a friend of yours is hurting, it’s painful. But I was also thinking about the audience, and it had to be painful for them.”
It was. While the Manhattan media world had seen Curry’s exit coming for months, middle-American viewers recoiled at the raw reality on their screens. Part of the genius of a morning show is that the audience falls in love with the hosts, gets comfortable with them. Which, when a split occurs, becomes an enormous problem. In the space of a few weeks, Today lost a fifth of its audience, what a rival network executive compares to an iceberg sliding into the ocean. Today lost $40 million in advertising revenue from the ratings decline.
Guthrie, the winsome new girl, suddenly found herself in the middle of a media disaster, painted by the tabloids as the “other woman” who ousted Curry. Her agent was furious when he saw how NBC fumbled the transition, believing NBC allowed Curry to hurt the show. Though it had been clear for months that Guthrie was waiting in the wings to replace Curry, she had been careful not to openly angle for the job. Her role was negotiated on the very day of the Stelter report. When she was asked to become co-host, Guthrie cried in Capus’s office, worried that Curry, and Today viewers, would see her as the backstabber.
The biggest blowback, of course, was aimed directly at Today’s main star, Matt Lauer. In the coming months, his Q scores, a measure of audience favorability, sank from 19 to a lackluster 9, the air suddenly rushing out of the balloon. It wasn’t necessarily that Lauer was different; it was that he was perceived differently, with viewers wondering if he was really who he was pretending to be, given what had just happened to his partner, a woman who’d seemed to be, with some minor turbulence, his “friend.”