The Leader of the Pack
It is Friday, April 6, and Matt Lauer is pawing through a stack of newspapers in his dressing room above Today's Studio 1A. He scans a New York Times article about Keith Olbermann's nasty legal battle with Al Gore and the executives at Current, the latest in a string of former employers for the volatile cable news host. "Olbermann is suing Current for $70 million," says Lauer, betraying a hint of disbelief.
Of course, the most famous face of the morning doesn't mention the day's other big-money media headline: his signing of a four-year contract with NBC's Today for a reported $25 million a year. (Lauer won't comment on the dollar figure.) Earlier, at 7:09 a.m., Ann Curry announced on air that her 54-year-old co-host was staying at the top-rated morning show, capping months of speculation about his future on the franchise, one that funnels more than half a billion dollars a year into NBC News coffers.
"I should have retired," he jokes, as he contemplates his evening plans -- the Bruce Springsteen concert at Madison Square Garden. "I have to nap to go to a rock concert," he says. "That's how sad it is." Reminded that he has now missed his opportunity to sleep in for the foreseeable future, he smiles: "There will be other chances."
It won't be soon enough for rivals at ABC's Good Morning America, who have smelled blood in the morning waters since Meredith Vieira stepped down from Today in May 2011. Having closed the ratings gap -- GMA was just 119,000 viewers behind for the week ending March 26 (its closest margin in seven years) -- the staff at the perennially second-place show held out hope that Lauer would decide to retire to the golf course and work on his 7 handicap. So this morning, an enormous glass bowl filled with Top Flight golf balls arrives at the Today studios with a congratulatory note from "The GMA Team": "We thought you could have used these on the golf course …" Says Lauer facetiously, "Isn't that nice."
the fact that one man is so personally in the crosshairs of GMA -- and that his will-he-or-won't-he contract talk makes national headlines -- speaks both to Lauer's power and the transition of morning news into full-blown cultural marker-cum-revenue driver. If Lauer, a father of three young children who already was making $17 million a year, had pulled up stakes, morning news from 7 to 9 a.m. would have been thrown into chaos. His tenure has encompassed more than 16 years of consecutive ratings wins for Today, which might lead one to presume that the merry-go-round of female anchors is less critical than his stability. In 2011, Today generated $484 million in ad revenue for the 7 to 9 a.m. hours alone, according to Kantar Media. All four weekday hours of Today pulled in $612 million in 2011, more than three times the $181 million of Nightly News. And Lauer -- with his unique ability to toggle between the serious and fun in a split second, without ever sounding condescending to the audience or the topic -- is key to that success.
With Lauer's current contract set to expire in December, "we were waiting," says NBC News president Steve Capus. "We were anxious to know where his head was." CBS News chairman Jeff Fager had told THR that he would make a place for Lauer on 60 Minutes. Katie Couric also had reached out to Lauer about joining her on her daytime talk show. "The opportunity for us to team up again would have been really exciting," says Couric; Lauer confirms: "I wasn't just wasting time. There's no crime in listening."
But Lauer, who describes himself as "the most obnoxious creature of habit," placed a call to NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke on April 4 to let him know he had decided to stay. "That set in motion a pretty intense number of hours," recalls Capus.
Lauer's longtime agent Ken Lindner immediately began hammering out a contract with the company's business affairs executives. Thirty-six hours later, the deal was done.
"The only question was whether he wanted to continue to do the job and everything that it demands. That's all that had to be decided," says Capus, who adds that there was no haggling and very little negotiation at all. "His is a unique situation. We mutually agreed to something awfully fast."
Lauer is professional, collegial, a "dream to work with," says Curry. At least visibly, he's not tortured by the personal demons that turn so many news stars into anchor monsters, throwing tantrums and abusing their staff. "He's the real deal," says Today senior producer Marc Victor. "What you see on-air is what you get. And you can't say that about too many TV people. There's always the TV personality, and then there's the real them. With him, he's that same guy."
At this moment, Lauer is due back on set for the 10 a.m. West Coast update. "It's hard to explain after 17 years -- this is a second family," he says. "It's impossible to leave. I knew it was going to be hard even as I was contemplating it. And in the end, if you love what you do and you love the people you do it with, why throw things up in the air for something that could be much less satisfying and less rewarding?"
While talking to this reporter, Lauer's iPhone buzzes with a call from his mother, and his kids ring him on his desk phone. "Hey, guys, listen, I'm just about to update for the West Coast," he says, in that soft voice adults use to talk to children. "So can I call you at 10 minutes after 10?"
Lauer's temperament is perfectly suited for morning TV, where viewers form long attachments to programs and the people on them. But he found himself unsure whether he wanted to continue to make the lifestyle sacrifices that come with the predawn grind. The work still energizes him. But he adds: "I don't want to be known in my life for what I do from 5 to 9 in the mornings. After you get to do this job for a while, you feel so blessed and lucky to do it. But at some point, you do need to remember that this is just one aspect of life and that you spend a whole lot more of your day being a father and a husband and a friend and a son than you do being on the Today show. This is a really important part of my life. But it's not my life."
And on this day, in what should be the highlight of his professional life, Lauer betrays a hint of that ambivalence. The kind that probably makes audiences, especially women, like him even more.
Now more than ever, though, Lauer has to remain laser focused on winning. His new contract comes at the end of a particularly dramatic week in New York's never-dull morning-show wars. Good Morning America recruited Lauer's former Today colleague Couric to sit in for Robin Roberts. Today executives struck back, inviting GOP lightning rod Sarah Palin to co-host on Tuesday, which prompted Vieira, also pressed into service on Monday, to crack on-air that the Palin turn had the whiff of "desperation." Ryan Seacrest appeared on Wednesday not as rumored Lauer heir apparent (more on that later) but to announce that his first assignment under a new deal with NBCUniversal would be to contribute to NBC's primetime coverage of the London Olympics.
With more than 15 years as co-host -- preceded by a two-year apprenticeship under good friend Bryant Gumbel -- Lauer already has hosted Today longer than anyone in the show's 60-year history. And he's seen a GMA surge before. In 2005, a gap of nearly 700,000 viewers was enough to get then-executive producer Tom Touchet bounced from his job in favor of Jim Bell. So far this season, the total-viewer gap between Today and GMA is just over 500,000 and about 450,000 in the critical 25-to-54 demographic. If critics questioned the wisdom of casting Beltway wonk George Stephanopoulos as Roberts' co-host in 2009 (Josh Elliott and Lara Spencer joined in 2011), so far this season, GMA has grown its audience 5 percent to 4.9 million viewers.
"They've been leaders for a billion weeks," says ABC News president Ben Sherwood of Today.
Actually, 852 weeks as of April 6, but who's counting?
"We like our chances," Sherwood continues. "This is all about the trend lines. And our trend line is going up. Theirs is coming down. If the present trend lines continue, at some point those lines cross, and suddenly we're in first place."
For the week of April 2, as Lauer and Couric went head-to-head and GMA pulled out a one-day win on April 4, Today ended up the winner with a 12 percent gain in viewers compared with the previous week, while GMA was up just 1 percent.
"The excitement of being No. 2 gunning for No. 1 is palpable," says one veteran news executive. "And when you're No. 2, you try more things." Like Sherwood pitting Couric against her old show and old friend.
"It's something they've been talking about for a while," says Couric, who joined ABC News in June as a special correspondent via a deal for a daytime talk show. And ABC News executives enthusiastically antagonized their competition. In a promo for Couric's guest turn, she accidentally-on-purpose called Stephanopoulos "Matt"; one segment had Couric's driver reflexively deliver her to Today's Rockefeller Plaza location.
"This stunt fired people up here in a very, very big way," says one Today staffer. Lauer is more reflective. "I was vocally not one of the people who thought it was wrong," he says. "I thought it was absolutely right. Katie hasn't been here for six years. She had a completely different stop in between at CBS. She's under contract at ABC News. She's one of the best morning hosts ever. Why wouldn't you use her on that show?"
Lauer himself used Today's stunt casting of Seacrest to playfully quash the rumors that the American Idol host was in line for Lauer's job, a story first floated in December in The Wall Street Journal. The two have become friends since they first met for dinner (a move initiated by Lauer) at Upper East Side neighborhood staple Donohue's Steak House a couple weeks after the Journal article appeared.
Still, the subsequent media speculation it spurred rankles Lauer. "Ninety-five percent of the things I have seen in print or heard said on the radio or on television or seen on websites about me and the show and the future are incorrect," he says. When it's pointed out that the Journal is a reputable publication, not a fast and loose gossip site, he laughs: "Like they actually get things right?"
Says Vieira: "Matt's very private about all parts of his life. But about that, absolutely. He plays it very close to the vest." Indeed, Lauer has an alias Twitter handle, but he doesn't tweet. Like many journalists, he is more voyeur than exhibitionist. "I value my privacy a lot," he explains.
That kind of personal reticence has led Lauer to remain quiet as speculation about his relationship and questionable on-air chemistry with co-host Curry abounds. But on this day, he unburdens himself ever so slightly.
"We're part of the press, but we don't like to live in it," he admits. "I read the rumors, and I know there is a cottage industry of meanness out there. I love Ann. I've known her for 20 years. I think we have a kind of sister-brother thing, maybe sister-brother from different parents," he laughs, adding: "We're not at all alike. But I feel very comfortable alongside her."
Lauer maintains friendships with Couric and Vieira, but he and Curry do not socialize outside of the office save for the occasional industry event. Asked whether he misses Vieira, he says: "Of course. I miss her as a person mostly. I miss the dynamic." Each time Vieira returns to the NBC News studios, she trashes Lauer's dressing room using bright red lipstick to scribble profanities on the mirror. "That's one of my little fetishes," says Vieira with a laugh. "I'm trying to improve his vocabulary. I only write what I feel like he can handle."
Former Today executive producer Jeff Zucker, who was responsible for putting the show on its current winning streak, says, "Matt has had incredible chemistry with whoever he sat next to, including Bryant Gumbel. That doesn't just happen. Obviously with Katie it was electric and special. And with Meredith, it became equally special. And I think that's a testament to Matt." Zucker pointedly doesn't comment on the chemistry between Lauer and Curry.
But Lauer says his partnership with Curry "is still a transition. I think the chemistry is good. People have to get used to the fact that it's not what it was eight months ago [or] eight years ago. Every team is different. And people need to give us a chance to be different."
Capus, for one, is apoplectic about all of it: "It's absolutely ludicrous. There isn't a person alive at NBC News who dislikes Ann Curry. She's beloved inside our organization. It's wishful thinking on the part of competitors who will do anything to try to gain an advantage. And frankly, I think it's disgusting."
Lauer isn't the managing editor (a title that generally comes with the evening news job), but he actively helps steer the broadcast. Lauer admits that the tabloid turn of the media in general has been challenging, even though Today can be as guilty as any other news outlet (Today and MSNBC came under fire for an exclusive interview with Michael Jackson's personal physician Conrad Murray days before his manslaughter conviction that was part of a package deal with a U.K. production company). "Sometimes you feel like you're losing ground because other people are reporting this stuff," he says. But there are other stories easy to nix: an ogling piece about Lara Flynn Boyle's disastrous plastic surgery is a recent example. "This is not what we do. When it's something that absolutely strikes me as wrong, we kill it."
But mistakes still occur: A misleadingly edited Trayvon Martin 911 call on the March 27 broadcast of Today put NBC News on the defensive. The network apologized, then fired the producer responsible for editing the piece, which was reported by correspondent Ron Allen. "It's not acceptable," says Lauer. "It was sloppy, and it was wrong."
Lauer's hustle -- and likability -- serves as a reminder of just how difficult it is to mint male morning hosts. ABC's Charlie Gibson exuded a certain sleepy avuncular charm; Charlie Rose has brought intellectual gravitas to a revamped CBS This Morning (quality, yes, but not exactly Mom-in-a-morning-rush bait). But of the rotating cast of Lauer stand-ins -- CNBC's Carl Quintanilla, MSNBC's Willie Geist, Meet the Press host David Gregory -- none emerged as a replacement. Brian Williams' memorably awkward appearances as a fill-in on the show a few years back brought into further relief Lauer's unique ability to thread the morning TV needle of everyman as hard-nosed anchor. "He always puts the audience at ease," says GMA's Roberts. "He can be a man's man, but what's so appealing is that you trust him. Also, he's not too handsome but handsome enough."
Adds her ABC News colleague Barbara Walters, who started her career as a Today researcher in 1961: "Matt is able to do the most serious interview and then talk to, say, Lindsay Lohan. He has that quality. Men like him; women do too."
Lauer's skills and Q rating (70 percent of Americans 18 and older are familiar with Lauer, according to Marketing Evaluations Inc.) are such that he could command just about anything he dreams up.
Lauer, once deemed too lightweight, began his career pivot to heir apparent in 1996 with a series of big news stories while Today show news anchor: the TWA Flight 800 explosion off Long Island and the bombing at the Atlanta Olympics 10 days later. One year into Lauer's tenure as Today's co-host, his interview with then-first lady Hillary Clinton at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal put to rest questions about Lauer's hard-news chops.
It was Jan. 27, 1998, when Clinton was booked for a sit-down with Couric. But with the death of Couric's husband, Jay Monahan, three days earlier, the interview fell to Lauer.
"I remember vividly going over the questions with Matt," recalls Zucker. "We had TV trucks lined up outside to cover the story. MSNBC and CNBC were going to simulcast Today. This was without question the biggest interview of Matt Lauer's life."
Bill Clinton had issued his finger-wagging "I did not have sex with that woman" denial the night before. Hillary Clinton then infamously told Lauer that she and her husband were the targets of a "vast right-wing conspiracy."
Says Zucker: "Matt did an incredible job with exactly the right tone and all the right questions. Nobody ever questioned Matt'sability after that."
Like his anchor star competitors, he's a persuasive and active booker, having landed notable interviews with Dick Cheney, Vladimir Putin, and Princes William and Harry on the 10th anniversary of their mother's death. He began courting George W. Bush for his first post-presidency sit-down the moment he announced he would write his memoir, even though the Oval Office interview with Bush on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 was considered particularly contentious (with Bush jabbing his finger at Lauer's chest during repeated questioning about black sites and waterboarding). "It's one of my favorite pictures," he says of a photo of himself and the president from that day. The two men are in the midst of an animated conversation. Says Lauer: "I know exactly what we were talking about. But I can't tell you."
"Do you want me to shut the door?" asks Lauer, as we adjourn to his third-floor Rockefeller Center office a few weeks earlier. He is seated behind his desk, where nary a single slip of paper or stray paper clip litters the spotless glass top. Lauer -- who is always immaculately dressed and favors slim-cut Zegna suits -- is famously neat and incredibly punctual. Couric jokes that he was Felix to her Oscar. "He's a creature of habit. He'd get there at 4:30 every morning," recalls Couric. "I would stroll in at a quarter to six, my hair would be all over the place." And Curry admits to feeling the pressure to measure up to her fashion forward couchmate. "I look at outfits and think, 'Will that look OK sitting next to Matt Lauer?' So that's been my personal hell."
Lauer admits that there may be a little OCD in his fastidious nature -- his alarm goes off at 4:10 a.m., but his own internal clock wakes him at exactly 4:08 a.m. every day. And he's at the studio at 4:46 a.m. -- give or take one to two minutes. He has his breakfast in his dressing room -- a cup of tea and a bowl of fruit -- while reading the morning papers (The New York Times, Los Angeles Times) and scanning websites (The Daily Beast). By 5:30 a.m., he is going through the morning briefing prepared by the overnight producers. At 6:30 a.m., the anchors begin to edit the cold open with senior broadcast producer Don Nash, a 23-year Today veteran. After the show, Lauer may spend a few hours in his office. But on most days, he's either in the gym or riding his bike in Central Park by noon -- a critical time to unplug when he generally ignores phone calls and e-mail. By late afternoon, the briefings are beginning to hit his inbox for the next morning's show.
Brought up in westchester County, N.Y., and then Greenwich, Conn., he describes his childhood as "not Norman Rockwell but close." This despite his parents' divorce when Lauer was 8 and his sister was 13. His parents -- Marilyn, a homemaker who had been a catalogue model, and Jay, a bicycle salesman who rose to vice president of his own bicycle company -- went out of their way not to let their divorce scar their children.
"It was never a situation where it was so tense that on a Friday when I was going to go to my dad's he had to pull up to the end of the driveway and honk the horn and my mother would push me out the door," recalls Lauer. "My dad would come in and have drinks."
Both of Lauer's parents remarried, creating a large blended family with three stepsiblings on both sides. Lauer was only an average student at Woodlands High School in Hartsdale, a small community in Westchester. After his sophomore year, Lauer's mother and stepfather moved the family to tony Greenwich, where they lived in a garden apartment, in order to enroll Lauer in the more academically rigorous Greenwich High School. Lauer continued to spend weekends with his father, most often at one public golf course or another.
"One of the reasons I love the game so much was that it was four and a half hours alone with my dad," says Lauer. "He wasn't the kind of dad who stood behind me all the time, fixing my grip or critiquing my swing. We just played and we talked, and it was magical for me, magical."
Lauer and his father continued to play golf right up until his father's death at the age of 80 in April 1997, less than three months after Lauer was named co-host of Today. "He was the first person I called when I got the job."
If Lauer has reached broadcasting's pinnacle, his career trajectory was not without its bumps. He left Ohio University in 1979, a few credits short of a diploma, in order to take a job as the producer of the noon news at a WOWK in Huntington, W.Va., and by 1980 was promoted to an on-air role. By the time he was 25, he began bouncing from job to job in New York (as host of PM Magazine), Philadelphia (at NBC affiliate WCAU), Boston (hosting weekday program Talk of the Town), New Jersey (hosting a morning show out of Secaucus' WWOR). But nothing lasted. He endured a year and a half of unemployment after WWOR declined to renew his contract. He went on auditions. He got offers for game shows and infomercials. Unable to afford his Manhattan rent, in 1990 he gave up his apartment and retreated with his beloved golden retriever Waldon to a smaller, cheaper rental in North Salem, N.Y.
"I rented this tiny little cottage, and I sat there with my dog and waited for the phone to ring. I was devastated," he says.
The story of his fortuitous brush with a job as a tree trimmer is one Lauer has told before. He put his dog in the car for their morning drive to purchase the newspaper, coffee and a hard roll (he'd budgeted $3 for this morning ritual), when he saw a help-wanted sign on the back of a tree-trimming truck.
"I thought, 'If I'm wearing a hard hat and someone drives by, they're not going to recognize me.' So they're not going to go, 'Oh Matt, you used to host that show, now you're trimming trees. Boy you're done!' "
He applied for the tree-trimming job and waited for the phone to ring. When it finally did, it was WNBC general manager Bill Bolster with an offer at New York's NBC flagship. He never got a call back from the tree-trimming company. In 1995, then-executive producer Zucker, impressed by Lauer's work ethic and natural on-camera presence, tapped him for the Today news desk. Gumbel has been his best friend and golf partner since then. The two men play together several times a week in the high season and -- both clotheshorses -- they even posed for a fashion spread in Golf Digest.
"We've gone on golf trips where we've both emerged from our hotel rooms wearing pretty much the same thing," recalls Gumbel. "And it's a race to see which of us can run back into the room and change first."
For Lauer, say friends and colleagues, whether to stay at Today came down to a lifestyle choice. Providing for his family beyond the tangible advantages a multimillion-dollar salary confers seems to weigh on Lauer, who endured a rocky period in his marriage in 2006, when he and his wife, Annette, a Dutch émigré and former model briefly separated. Last year, Annette and their three children, Jack, 10, daughter Romy, 8, and son Thijs, 5, relocated to the Hamptons full time. Lauer's Today schedule requires him to spend most of his week at their Park Avenue co-op, but he does manage to get out to the Hamptons during the week and spends each weekend there. "The life out there is idyllic," Lauer says. "So it's a nice place to have a home base."
On both fronts, home and work, Lauer seems deeply contented. Which might explain a lot about why he decided to stay. "When you get your dream job, you'd be really hard-pressed to leave it," he says. "Unless you've got another dream job out there."
"Charlie!" lauer yells across the studio. It is the top of the 8 a.m. hour, just six days before the anchor will call Burke to tell him he's staying, and Charlie Sheen, television's problem child, is miked and seated in Today's interview area. "You ready to open up about your life?!"
"Yeah, man," murmurs Sheen, in New York to dutifully press the flesh with advertisers for his new FX comedy Anger Management. He's brought along a bottle of 1978 Chateau Margaux (which retails
for more than $350) in a velvet-lined box for his interviewer. "You greasing the skids?" says Lauer with a laugh.
As Lauer sits, Sheen asks sotto voce what kind of interview he's planning to conduct. The "morning TV interview," says Lauer casually. "The I-can-come-back-to-work-tomorrow interview."
The fallen-from-grace interview is second nature for Lauer. He's done them all: Britney Spears in the midst of her 2006 tabloid frenzy; Elizabeth Edwards in her first interview after separating from John Edwards in 2010; Lindsay Lohan asserting her sobriety in a February image-rehabilitation interview. It is also in many ways perfectly suited to his gracious temperament and talent for smoothly intruding on the personal lives and private foibles of the rich and powerful.
"I'm going to start off with something that's going to sound awful at first, but bear with me, OK," says Lauer.
Sheen laughs nervously and shifts in his chair.
"There were people who probably last year at this time would have placed a bet that you might not even be around. Literally."
It's not so much a question as an icebreaker. But it gives Sheen --dressed in a black suit, skinny gray-and-black striped tie and white shirt unbuttoned at the neck -- the room he needs to locate his self-deprecating streak.
"I would have taken that action," says Sheen. (Rueful laughter reverberates through the studio.)
Lauer then shows a recent TMZ video of Sheen appearing intoxicated at a Guns N' Roses concert to deftly steer the conversation toward Sheen's unorthodox substance-abuse recovery scheme. "I don't know one addiction specialist who would tell a guy in your position that it's OK to drink," says Lauer.
"If you do," answers Sheen, "I should probably go to that guy." (This gets a bigger laugh.)
After the interview, Sheen says: "The man has a code. He's noble. He has integrity. He'll embrace the truth if you're willing to let yourself go there."
Sheen does not have a long relationship with Lauer. Their first interview was in September 2011. But they've formed a bond in a short amount of time.
"He's a special cat," says Sheen, adding: "Who knew he was this good? The man has a future."
So it seems.
LAUER'S MOST MEMORABLE INTERVIEWS: In his first years at Today, critics worried he didn't have hard-news chops. Now, he's known as a nice guy who can still throw a punch.
Tom Cruise (June 2005) In an appearance to promote War of the Worlds -- with then-fiancee Katie Holmes in tow -- Cruise spars with Lauer over Scientology, then slams the pharmacology industry and Brooke Shields in particular for taking antidepressants for postpartum depression. When Lauer asserts he's known people who have been helped by such drugs, Cruise fires back, "You're glib."
George W. Bush (September 2006) Lauer presses the president on the government's black sites and enhanced interrogation techniques including waterboarding during an interview in the Oval Office on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. Both men are standing, and an animated Bush repeatedly jabs his finger in Lauer's chest. Lauer keeps a framed photo from the interview -- snapped by the White House photographer on the portico -- in his NBC office.
Ann Coulter (January 2009) The conservative host is bounced from Today in favor of Tony Blair and confronts Lauer when she's rebooked the next day. He responds: "We traded you for Tony Blair, and I think that's a pretty good switch." Coulter claims she was only asked back after the Drudge Report publicized the snub. Lauer retorts: "You know what that expression is? Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean you don't have enemies."
John McCain (January 2010) Lauer asks the Arizona senator whether allegations in Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's Game Change of a "hasty and haphazard" vetting of Sarah Palin are a "fair assessment." When McCain answers, "I wouldn't know," Lauer pounces: "Your comment that you wouldn't know is somewhat surprising to me; you were the presidential candidate."
Kanye West (November 2010) West becomes annoyed when a video of him grabbing the microphone from Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards plays underneath his interview. "Please don't let that happen again," West tells Lauer. "That's ridiculous." Lauer orders the video nixed but later asserts, "There's nothing improper about it." West subsequently cancels a planned Today performance.
Christie Brinkley (March 2012) The former supermodel expects to promote her star turn in Broadway's Chicago, but the interview focuses on her ugly public divorce from Peter Cook. "How can you two make this better … for the sake of the children," asks Lauer pointedly. Brinkley breaks down: "I just want peace, and every time I have any joy, he has to try to destroy it."
THE HIGHEST-PAID NEWS PERSONALITIES: Lauer's now reportedly on top of these other A-list anchors.
- Matt Lauer: $25 million
- Bill O'Reilly: $20 million
- Diane Sawyer: $15 million
- Brian Williams: $12.5 million