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Long Night at Today

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“Backlash!”

Ann Curry was gone but not gone, which created a situation of spectacular awkwardness. Any trust that had existed between Curry and Today was shattered. When Robin Roberts left Good Morning America a month later to get treatment for MDS, Curry asked NBC if she could tweet a note of sympathy for the ABC co-host. NBC said no, afraid she was trying to aid the enemy. In late July, when Curry was assigned to cover the shootings in Aurora, Colorado, she refused to appear on the air with Guthrie, believing Bell was trying to exploit the event for image repair.

In the original plan, the Olympics would be the opportunity to hit the RESET button and establish the Lauer-Guthrie duo with viewers. But while Today was in London, Curry sent out a cryptic tweet that made it clear she was miserable. In early August, a week into the Olympics, she wrote, “When I despair I remember that throughout history, truth and love have always won.” (An even more pointed tweet was subsequently deleted.)

When Curry flew to London, the show attempted to stage an on-air reunion between Lauer and Curry. But Curry, who sat in her car a few yards from the set until her shot was ready, refused to speak to Lauer as he tried making small talk. On the air, Curry pretended Lauer didn’t exist after he turned to her to introduce a segment she had produced. Lauer looked stiff and isolated.

The Today show won those two weeks in the ratings, but they would prove an anomaly. Good Morning America immediately sprang back to No. 1.

While in London, Lauer and Today’s producers discussed the direction of the show and how to change it. “When we got back to New York, it was a time to start fresh, and we had to stop thinking about what had happened in the past and start building a future for the show,” says Don Nash, who was then the No. 2 producer under Bell. “We all had to love our show again and be enthusiastic about it.”

But not everyone was feeling it. That same month, Roker suggested, in a now-infamous clip on live TV, that NBC had unfairly axed Curry. While interviewing a group of female crew rowers who said they threw members into the river to celebrate victory, Roker joked that “our tradition” at the Today show “is to throw one of us under the bus! But that’s another story.”

Roker insists his comment wasn’t referring to the Curry situation: “It never even dawned on me that people could possibly construe that it was directed at [Matt Lauer].”

As weeks passed, the story line that Lauer had pushed out Curry became a twinned narrative to what was happening every day on the show. Morale plunged, and disgruntled employees leaked regularly to the tabloids. Thus began a continuous drip feed of negative reports on Lauer. “Backlash! Matt Lauer Hated at Today Show After Ann Curry’s Firing,” went one headline; another: “Matt Lauer ‘Obsessively’ Watches Good Morning America, As Today’s Ratings Keep Sinking.”

Lauer drove the staff harder than ever and was emphatic that either Burke or Bell get in front of the negative wave that was hitting him. In September, Bell was sent out to do a series of interviews insisting that Curry’s disastrous exit “wasn’t Matt’s fault,” but it did nothing to quell skepticism, not even within NBC’s own ranks. “Everybody at NBC, everybody at the Today show, everybody understood that Ann was kicked out of her position because Matt didn’t want her there,” says a prominent NBC staffer. “That’s why it was so personal between Ann and Matt.”

The Villain

Ben Sherwood may not have envisioned this specific situation, but it was certainly the outcome he’d been dreaming of, with ABC finally at No. 1. Sherwood and his minions rubbed it in, getting revenge for all the years of Today’s dominance. And while reality was sinking the Today show, it was, oddly, lifting Good Morning America. Today show producers resented the fact that ABC was using the health problems of Robin Roberts to stoke viewer sympathy and expand on their ratings lead, feeling it was cynical—even though Today had done the same thing a decade ago when Katie Couric used her husband’s death from colon cancer to promote an on-air colon­oscopy that was a ratings smash.

NBC News was in disarray after the Olympics. Burke installed a network executive named Pat Fili-Krushel to oversee Capus, whose career at NBC was swiftly winding down (he would retire in February). When Bell was moved off Today, Fili-Krushel tried replacing him with two women producers, but Lauer protested and pressured her to hire Bell’s former No. 2, Don Nash. Fili-Krushel hired NBC producer Alexandra Wallace (disclosure: Her brother, Ben, is a writer for this magazine) to oversee the redesign of the show. In the months leading up to this, both Nash and Wallace had eyed the door, having informal conversations with ABC News.


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