5:00am PT by Michael O'Connell
'Today' Firing: Jamie Horowitz Wanted Savannah Guthrie Out, Natalie Morales Demoted
This story first appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
"What are you doing here?" joked Tamron Hall on Nov. 20 on NBC's Today, when she joined Natalie Morales at the anchor desk. Just 24 hours earlier, Us Weekly ran a false report that both Morales, 42, and colleague Willie Geist, 39, had been fired — another round of negative publicity for NBC News after the abrupt axing of Today senior vp and GM Jamie Horowitz earlier in the week. Morales and Geist still have jobs, though the future of the show is far from clear as internal politics continue to hamper NBC's effort to reclaim No. 1 status from ABC's Good Morning America.
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Horowitz, 38, had completed more than two months of observation at NBC before his official December start. Sources say the former ESPN exec (hired to a three-year, $3.3 million deal, according to The New York Times) made a bold five-hour presentation to NBC News president Deborah Turness in mid-November. He proposed that Today lead co-anchor Savannah Guthrie, 42, be dropped and Morales demoted. The morning show's 10 a.m. co-anchor Hoda Kotb, 50, should be redeployed to the earlier hours; Josh Elliott, 43, groomed for a larger role; and Al Roker, 60, moved off the weather beat. Horowitz's would-be plan was in opposition to Turness' take on Today; as one source puts it, Turness thinks there's a problem with the playbook while Horowitz sees the issue as the show's players.
Not surprisingly, word of Horowitz's plan was met with strong resistance from Today insiders, especially longtime executive producer Don Nash and lead anchor and 17-year veteran Matt Lauer, who signed a new contract this year. Show veterans also believed Horowitz was using the press, specifically the New York Post's Page Six, to float rumors of Morales' departure. (Page Six also posted an item days before his exit suggesting Horowitz was being considered as a possible replacement for Turness.) Horowitz, whose separation deal with NBC closed Nov. 21, couldn't be reached for comment. He now is free to pursue jobs elsewhere.
The question for Turness, the former ITV chief hired in 2013 by NBCUniversal News Group chairman Pat Fili-Krushel, is how much this strife impacts her ability to recruit a replacement and turn around Today. "The message is clear: Today is unwilling to change," says one source. But others question how much the executive drama matters. "This is all inside baseball, and it has no impact on the success or failure of the show itself," says media analyst Andrew Tyndall. "People leak things to Page Six in order to pursue internal vendettas. It's just office politics played out in public." He notes that while Ann Curry's teary 2012 ouster precipitated Today's ratings slide, departures like Horowitz's typically don't resonate with viewers.
That all of this unfurled in the open, as it often does with Today, isn't necessarily all NBC's fault. "Rupert Murdoch's people like going after NBC News more than the others," adds Tyndall, referring to the Post. "I'm sure there's just as much dirty laundry at ABC or CBS. There's no evidence that NBC News is more dysfunctional as an organization."