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Long Night at Today

In trying to rebuild Lauer’s image, Today created a series of advertisements last January describing the cast as longtime friends who know one another’s kids. On the show, producers started putting Lauer in a four-person configuration at a new, wider desk, alongside Guthrie, Roker, and Morales, which replicates the group setup one sees on Good Morning America. “We’re not trying to hide Matt,” insists Nash, “but I think there’s a greater sense of energy when we have all four there.”

This summer, Today will have a brighter, warmer set, getting away from the smoked-glass-and-taupe stage it has now, which Wallace acknowledged was too “cool.” Uplift and warmth are the new buzzwords at Today. And a sense of transparency: The show has also borrowed a trick from CBS This Morning, using a Steadicam to reveal the set from behind the scenes so viewers get a 360-degree feel.

Today producers grouse that ABC has taken the low road by leading the morning news with lurid crime stories and cheesy viral YouTube videos, larding on game-show segments. Today has done less crime, but fills the show with its own variety of tacky stunts and plenty of chatter about YouTube. But in the end it’s about the stars, not the stories. To jump-start the frisson between Lauer and Guthrie, Nash is building in more reaction shots from the two co-anchors so they can emote. “All I can do is create opportunity,” says Nash. “I can’t create chemistry.”

From his vantage point on the set, Lauer believes Today has turned a corner. “The show that you watched yesterday and today is fundamentally different than the show we were doing six months ago,” he says. “That’s been a conscious effort. We will find a way each day to uplift and inspire you. It’s more who we are. We are not dour, depressed people.”

(“That’s who we are!” declares Hoda Kotb, the co-host of the tacky fourth hour of Today, who barges into the room with Kathie Lee Gifford.)

Lauer continues: “I’m confident that the show we’re doing today is the one that will allow us to dig ourselves out of the hole.”

But Today’s own staff appear divided on that, with some leaking their criticisms to the press, including to Stelter, Lauer’s nemesis, who recently reported on speculation that Lauer could be taken off the show. Inside NBC, Stelter’s report was viewed as retaliation for Lauer’s having given an interview to the Daily Beast trying to defend himself against the story line that he was the villain in the Curry debacle—a narrative he believes Stelter will publish in his book this April, along with previously reported allegations in the National Enquirer that Lauer had an affair with co-host Natalie Morales.

But few are letting Lauer off the hook.

There are smart people in the TV business, some within NBC, who say the show cannot hope to regain No. 1 in the morning with Matt Lauer in the chair. Others disagree, but acknowledge it will take a long time—as long as five years. Does NBC have that kind of time?

“Unless you’ve heard any differently,” says Wallace, laughing blackly, “we’re under the impression we do.”

Lauer’s contract is up within the next two years, providing a small window. NBC News executives have already had conversations about who might fill ­Lauer’s seat if and when he leaves, and there is indeed informed speculation inside NBC that Lauer could leave within the year. ­MSNBC’s Willie Geist, the Morning Joe anchor who also appears in the third hour of Today, is often mentioned as a replacement, but so are others, including Good Morning America’s Josh Elliott.

Last month, Today featured a segment in which Lauer pranked several members of the cast and crew into trying out an amazing new product: a mirror that would make them look younger. But it wasn’t a magic mirror at all. When people stood in front of it, they gasped at a terrifying special effect inside: the ghostly apparition of a woman.