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.

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

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.

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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.

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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?"

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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.


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