On March 15, NBC News hosted its annual upfront presentation, at which its executives make their pitches to ad buyers for the coming year. NBC News has won its ratings races for more than a decade, so they didn’t bother with a hard sell. At one point Brian Williams got up to roast his colleagues, poking fun at the white-wine-swilling hosts of Today’s fourth hour. “Hods and Kathie Lee are just baked. Permanently hammered,” he reportedly joked.
But left unmentioned was a big question hanging over the peacock network: Will Matt Lauer remain in the anchor chair at Today when his deal expires at the end of the year? The answer will come via a classic New York spectacle, the morning-anchor contract renegotiation, wherein the mutual avarice and clash of egos become even more entertainingly ridiculous against the backdrop of the forced bonhomie of the a.m. genre. And this one will play out with NBC News needing Lauer even more than it might have expected to just a year ago.
When Comcast completed its $30 billion takeover of NBC Universal in January 2011, the assumption was that while NBC’s prime-time programming was a mess, the news division was a reliable source of prestige and profits. But for all the lightheartedness on display at the upfronts earlier this month, NBC News suddenly no longer looks so secure in its perch. Williams still dominates in the evenings with Nightly News, but ABC’s Good Morning America has closed the gap with Today to within a few hundred thousand viewers on some mornings (and some mornings pulls ahead, as it did on March 19). On Sundays, CBS’s Face the Nation is surprisingly nipping at the heels of Meet the Press; next month, upping the pressure, CBS will extend Bob Schieffer’s half-hour show to a full hour to meet NBC’s offering head on. And Rock Center, NBC’s much promoted newsmagazine, has had anemic ratings, drawing as few as 2.6 million viewers.
Today is a huge moneymaker for NBC, generating ad revenues in excess of $450 million in 2010, according to Kantar Media. Lauer is the key to that haul. After playing the beta to Katie Couric’s alpha, he’s now the linchpin of the franchise, his versatility and likability buoying the program ever since her departure in 2006. Lauer’s worth only increased when Meredith Vieira left and handed the co-anchor chair to Ann Curry, who in the eyes of many television-news executives has experienced a rocky transition to her new role.
With the death of Tim Russert and the retirement of Tom Brokaw, Lauer has emerged as the last NBC News star from the era when broadcast still ruled. But his clout is vestigial in another way: As impressive as his mastery of the morning show’s mix of sober and silly is, it’s nonetheless a skill set for which there’s no other obvious outlet. Lauer could move on to hosting network specials or a syndicated talk show and enjoy an easier lifestyle, but that kind of sinecure would likely come at the cost of the influence he now enjoys.
Already, the NBC-Lauer dance is following the expected choreography. Step one: Talent signals he’s considering a change (last year, anonymous press reports said Lauer was ready to leave after Vieira announced her exit). Step two: Network signals it has other options (in December, The Wall Street Journal reported that NBC News president Steve Capus and Today executive producer Jim Bell took a meeting with Ryan Seacrest). Step three: Outlandish salary numbers are floated ($25 million a year, in Lauer’s case), and talent considers staying. Step four: maneuvering to a new contract. For NBC News, this last part will happen as its competitors start to elbow in.