'Today's' Ticking Clock: Who Is Matt Lauer's Heir Apparent?

 Kagan McLeod

This story first appeared in the Nov. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Less than two years after a disastrous anchor transition on NBC's Today, the clock is counting down to the next one. And the debate over who might replace Matt Lauer, said to earn nearly $25 million annually on a deal that extends to early 2015, is as delicate as it will be public. The botched June 2012 changeover from Ann Curry to Savannah Guthrie might have torpedoed NBC News' reputation as the outlet of the deftly executed handoff, but it also has made NBCUniversal executives including CEO Steve Burke and News Group chairman Patricia Fili-Krushel determined to make the next one smooth and painless. "We hope that he wants to last out at least this contract on the Today show," Fili-Krushel recently told THR, adding that she'd "keep Matt Lauer as long as he wants to stay."

But she also admitted the focus over the next two years is finding his heir apparent and that "expanding the family is the easiest way" to groom a successor but "not the only way."

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Willie Geist, 38, joined Today more than a year ago as co-host of the 9 a.m. hour with Natalie Morales and Al Roker. Geist is well-liked at NBC News and MSNBC, where he continues to appear on the first half of Morning Joe. He and Meet the Press host David Gregory, who has filled in on Today, are the obvious in-house candidates to succeed Lauer, should he leave. And some suggest Gregory, 43, is better suited to Today than Meet the Press, which has endured ratings woes, falling behind ABC's This Week during the third quarter. CNBC's Carl Quintanilla also is said to be a contender.

Data provided to THR by Q Scores, which measures audience sentiment toward stars, reveals that Geist and Gregory have higher positive ratings than Lauer; among adult women -- the key demographic against which morning TV ads are sold -- Gregory's positive Q Score stands at 18, compared with Geist's 14. Lauer this year dropped to a positive Q Score of 7, compared with 15 in 2012.

Burke is said to have made Today a top priority. On Oct. 31, THR.com reported that the show's longtime entertainment booker, Melissa Lonner, will leave by year's end. And NBC News executives are looking at other possible changes. Today had expressed interest in Anderson Cooper for a role on the show. But Cooper, 46, is negotiating a new deal with CNN and will continue to anchor pieces for 60 Minutes, whose executives want him to do more. Ryan Seacrest, 38, the subject of much speculation last year, and Carson Daly, 40, who in September was appointed Today's digital host and social media correspondent, are considered long shots for an anchor position. (Among Lauer's morning-news colleagues, Daly is the most polarizing and has "the weakest emotional connection" to female viewers, notes Q Scores executive vp Henry Schafer.)

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For NBC News, the stakes could not be higher. In 2012, Today generated $515 million in ad revenue for the 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. hours, according to Kantar Media, the biggest moneymaker in the NBC News portfolio. But Good Morning America's ratings -- in September, GMA marked a full season as the No. 1 morning program among total viewers and the 25-to-54 demo -- spurred a shift in upfront dollars from Today to GMA, say buyers.

ABC's ad-sales representatives naturally touted their show's top-rated status during upfront negotiations in the spring, while NBC reps stressed that their show was "stabilizing" after months of turmoil. "When the ratings story isn't good, they'll find other things to talk about," notes one buyer. "They might acknowledge it, but they'll never focus on the negative. They'll just change the conversation."

But with the third hour of Today, NBC can achieve better pricing -- the main reason Today continues to command a bigger share of revenue. (Kantar Media estimates that GMA took in $318 million in 2012.)

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Lauer, 55, by all accounts is a valued member of the NBC News family whose skills as a probing interviewer and genial host are rare. He explored other opportunities during his most recent contract negotiations -- and was very close to jumping to ABC News, say sources there. Asked about his future on Today during the Sept. 12 unveiling of the show's new set, Lauer asserted that he is "more invigorated" by his work than he has been "in a long time." He could decide to stay. And NBC execs have been encouraged by improved ratings. For the first five weeks of the season, the demo gap between Today and GMA was 55,000 viewers compared with 189,000 at the same time last year. GMA also is in the middle of contract talks with its stars.

But the days of the mega-salaried morning anchor are on the wane. And the trend toward the ensemble format -- pioneered by GMA and employed on Today -- in some ways has rendered the cast interchangeable. "They don't have anchors anymore; they just have movable parts," says TV news analyst Andrew Tyndall. "The 'team' concept is precisely that; nobody can get uppity."

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