Deborah Norville: Why Ann Curry Was Never Going to Win on 'Today' (Opinion)

5:00 AM PST 04/11/2012 by Deborah Norville

Two decades after her own NBC ouster, the former "Today" co-host writes that the deck is stacked against women in the morning show wars.

This story first appeared in the April 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Today co-host Ann Curry is "grim." The Good Morning America team is "giddy." "Katie vs. Sarah!" With all the yakking in the media about the so-called morning television "wars"--some of it invoking my name -- the storyline is being fed with a familiar, breathless tone: "Chicks Duke It Out on Morning TV." As usual, the flames are being fanned by commentators who never have actually worked in morning television. And, once again, no one is speaking up on behalf of the women of morning television.

Well, I have -- and I will.

Much is being made of the tightening ratings race between NBC's Today and ABC's GMA. NBC's flagship broadcast has seen ratings decline year-over-year, but this is not a new occurrence. In first-quarter 2009, Today had 1.24 million viewers more than GMA. Each year, that gap has narrowed -- 730,000 viewers (2010), 460,000 (2011) and 270,000 in first-quarter 2012.

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Who should be blamed? The slide started before Curry was elevated to co-host in 2011, so is Matt Lauer or Meredith Vieira responsible? Today got a swanky new set -- perhaps that's what the viewers don't like. There are myriad factors that play into television ratings; personalities are just one of them. Viewers' choices have increased, DVR playback might have snagged some viewers, or NBC's ratings erosion in the morning could be a reflection of its struggles in primetime, where it languishes in fourth place. Why is the press so quick to blame the chick?

Curry is a gifted broadcaster and a tireless reporter, and in her short stint as Today co-host, she already has used her platform to try to better the lot for others -- without putting the spotlight on herself. Witness NBC's new partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to bring jobs to veterans, an effort spearheaded by Curry.

On ABC, Katie Couric, who will launch a high-stakes daytime talk show in the fall, spent the first week of April reminding everyone of the sparkle and humor that made her a viewer favorite. She did a terrific job and looked like she was having a blast.

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Over on Today, Sarah Palin's April 3 appearance as guest host proved she was a good sport with self-deprecating humor and revealed her to be someone who hasn't forgotten what she learned years ago as a sportscaster in Anchorage. Meanwhile, the former Alaska governor no doubt is relishing the priceless free (and positive) publicity from the "Lamestream media."

But that's not what you're hearing from the press. The Couric/Palin matchup was blasted in one New York paper as though it were the Thrilla in Manila. Curry is being portrayed as down on the mat as the referee begins his 10 count. GMA co-host Robin Roberts' vacation was, I suspect, anything but restful, given the way she appeared to have been dissed by the hoopla over her off-week substitute.

I've seen this play before, and I know how it ends.

A generation ago, I was the "fresh one" brought in to appear on a broadcast already sailing through rocky waters. In 1989, I was named news anchor and later co-host on Today, months after a devastating memo from co-host Bryant Gumbel had been made public. His highly critical assessment of the show and the people on it spared no one, except me and naturalist Jim Fowler's animals, and I was just an occasional fill-in on the program. I was promoted to the Today job only after indisputable ratings success on NBC News at Sunrise as well as a documentary that was the seventh-most-watched show on television the week it aired.

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Within weeks of my joining the show opposite Gumbel and Jane Pauley, the press sniping started. They said I was younger and blonder than Pauley and scheming to steal her job. No one criticized my performance. Heck, I won an Emmy during all the craziness. But the press chorus grew louder and more negative. I begged the communications experts at the network to let me grant the many interview requests coming in. They forbade me to speak to anyone, saying, "Trust us, we're experts at this sort of thing." I followed their orders and kept quiet. So did everyone else. No one said a word on my behalf. The result was a huge erosion of ratings and eventually the end of my days at NBC, just a year and a half after I got the job.

I was devastated, but I dusted myself off. I resumed my career at CBS News, won another Emmy and moved over to Inside Edition, where I recently began my 17th year on the news-magazine. It's a ratings success, the fifth-highest-rated show in first-run syndication with 4.6 million daily viewers.

As we report the current morning-show saga, I find myself struggling not to blurt out to the suits at the networks: "Haven't you guys learned anything?" Once again, the press is going unchallenged in portraying key women in morning TV as victims and villains. It doesn't have to happen.

Would it have killed ABC to wait until George Stephanopoulos went on vacation to bring Couric back to morning television? On the air with Roberts, the two women could wow the audience without one woman seemingly under fire. As it stands now, there is a risk that Couric will seem "too comfortable" in Roberts' chair. I've been there. They said I was "too comfortable" when producers asked me to sit with Pauley and Gumbel on the set. Is being able to say, "We beat the Today show in the ratings" worth possibly damaging the anchor who helped you get there or the talk-show host who might make you millions?

Ratings ticked up for ABC last week -- they always do any time someone well-known appears in a new venue. But ratings go down, too. Ask CBS how long the ratings boost lasted after Katie's first days in the CBS Evening News job. Will Roberts be blamed for a possible decline? Has she been properly credited for the ratings growth GMA has enjoyed?

There. I've said it. One voice speaking up for my television sisters. I love a good fight, and the horse race between Today and Good Morning America is fun to watch. Viewers benefit from lively competition for great stories and scintillating guests. But fight fair, network dudes, and don't let the media damage the chicks in the process.

Deborah Norville is anchor of Inside Edition and author of The New York Times best-seller Thank You Power.

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DEBORAH'S MESSAGES TO THE WOMEN OF MORNING TV

To Robin Roberts: "Robin, you're an engaging, familiar presence, skillfully keeping GMA's growing collection of on-air performers together as a cohesive collegial group. You deserve better than the way the Katie stunt was handled. As penance, make the network give you a primetime special on something you're passionate about."

To Ann Curry: "Ann, I wish they'd let you have more of a role when Gov. Palin was visiting. I think it would have helped hush the nattering reporters. But, as Scarlett said, "Tomorrow's another day." Put another one of your kick-ass stories on air and make 'em be quiet. You're one of only a handful of reporters with the guts or the ability to do those reports."

To Katie Couric: "Katie, you've got a wonderfully high profile, and the suits know it. Make sure you don't let them overuse it as you prepare to launch your show. By the way, the funny wake-up video was a hoot, but I bet you don't really sleep in those pajamas!"

To Sarah Palin: "Gov. Palin, it was fun to see you on Today and smart of you to appear somewhere other than the familiar environs of Fox News. I'm sure the last thing you would have wanted is for any woman to appear marginalized by your visit. I hope you'll do more TV. How about my show?"

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FLASHBACK: NORVILLE'S SHORT TENURE AT TODAY: Deborah Norville was at the center of one of morning TV's most buzzed-about games of musical chairs.

In January 1990, a fresh-faced Norville, then 31, was promoted from news reader to co-host of NBC's Today, replacing well-liked 13-year veteran Jane Pauley. But almost as soon as she took over, ABC's Good Morning America began beating longtime No. 1 Today in the ratings and the media pounced, painting Norville as an All About Eve job stealer. Fourteen months later, when Norville went on maternity leave, Katie Couric, then a Washington correspondent for NBC, took her place as guest host. Ratings started to rise. So in April 1991, with Norville still out on leave, Today's Bryant Gumbel introduced a five-months-pregnant Couric, then 34, as his new full-time co-host. "Katie is now a permanent fixture up here, a member of our family -- an especially welcome one," said Gumbel. "Deborah Norville is not." -- Matthew Belloni

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