How Matt Lauer Became the Leader of the Pack

 Ruven Afanador

It's war in the mornings as the "Today" host opens up about his new reported $25 million-a-year deal, a move that (most likely) keeps the NBC juggernaut on top, inspired a strange delivery by "GMA" and has the industry marveling over how one man alone has altered the landscape of TV news.

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."


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