'Today' Show Boss: Rumors of Matt Lauer's Departure Are 'Ludicrous' (Q&A)

 Virginia Sherwood/NBC

NBC News' Today – one of the longest running television franchises at nearly 60 years – hits another milestone with the release today of last week's Nielsen ratings – 800 consecutive weeks as the No. 1 morning show. So the show – which is on four hours a day Monday through Friday and three hours over the weekend – is more than just NBC News' cash cow bringing in half a billion dollars in ad revenue (for the weekday program alone). It is a veritable institution launching countless TV news careers and at times becoming part of the news cycle itself. Jim Bell, the show's executive producer, talks to The Hollywood Reporter about the show's ratings dominance, digital success and reports that both Meredith Vieira and Matt Lauer may be heading for the door.
 
The Hollywood Reporter: Congratulations are in order for 800 weeks as the top-rated morning show.
 
Jim Bell: It is a nice number. We like numbers. And actually [this week] is my six-year anniversary.
 
THR: So how long can you keep doing this? When you look down the road 5 years, where do you see yourself?
 
Bell: It's hard to know that. One of the great things about the show is that you do get to do so many different things. You get to touch the world of hard news and politics and entertainment and pop culture and health and medicine. So I don't know, exactly.
 
THR: How do you feel about Today's position in relation to the competition? Do you obsessively track the ratings?
 
Bell: If you take a snapshot at any given moment, there is inevitably going to be a point, oh, let's pick a round number, over the course of those 800 weeks, where some weeks are better than others. [We] really care more about the show than the streak. And our focus is on being timely and topical and urgent and fresh everyday. And the streak hopefully takes care of itself.
 
THR: Has the definition of success changed in a warp-speed, multi-platform television universe?
 
Bell: The way we measure and define success remains constant in one way when you're talking about the demo [ratings] and total viewers and the brand. But it's also grown in many ways. It is very exciting to see 70 million web site streams on Today.com in the month of March, which is a new record. Those are 70 million impressions for your brand that didn't exist ten years ago and certainly didn't come anywhere close to those numbers even two years ago. The brand, with its mix of hard news and pop culture, has remarkable life in the new space of digital. It says everything that the main drivers for the month of March for our website were the tragedy in Japan and Charlie Sheen. We get to do it all. We don't compete against Good Morning America [the No. 2 ranked morning program] online. The Today web site was bigger than ABC News and CBS News web sites combined in terms of video streams last year.
 
THR: Obviously Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira are critically important to that success. And there is speculation that Vieira will not renew her contract when it expires in September. Is she staying or going?
 
Bell: We're still talking. We think she's fantastic and hope we'll have her with us.
 
THR: So she hasn't made her decision yet?
 
Bell: She hasn't told me.
 
THR: And it has also been reported that Lauer has informed NBC News executives that he will leave the show when his contract is up at the end of 2012. So has he told you that?
 
Bell: Absolutely not. I think that one is more ludicrous. When we're talking about something that is almost two years away, it's silly speculation. I think it's great that the show can generate this much attention and passion out there but we're fortunate that so much of it has been wrong and misguided.
 
THR: Is all of this distracting?
 
Bell: No. I think we're professional and understand and appreciate the attention and the amount of caring that people have for [Lauer and Vieira]. Everyone understands that the scrutiny that the show gets is part of the deal. And that's fine. No one is distracted by it. We're certainly aware of it. We're just focusing on 801.
 
Marisa.Guthrie@THR.com
Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie

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