NBC Unveils New 'Today' Set and Mandate Stressing Substance

Today Show Set - H 2013

On Monday morning, Today show viewers will notice a shiny new high-tech set and updated sunrise logo. But at a press event Thursday at the new studio 1A --  which is still not quite ready for air -- NBC News president Deborah Turness stressed that Today's new set -- the first in seven years -- is only one component of a more focused direction for the news division's flagship program and biggest revenue generator.

"We are a news show," said Turness, standing in front of a new 16-by-6 foot ultra high definition video wall that will serve as the show's main production station. "The No. 1 reason (viewers) tune in to our show is to find out what's going on in the world. It's about setting the agenda and getting the exclusives. We can do this better than anyone else."

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The Today show has been Turness' top priority since taking over as president of the news division six weeks ago. She has been in the control room nearly every day and she's emphasized big scoops as the main way the show can rebuild after the tumult of an awkward anchor transition and the vanquishing of Today's 16-year morning news winning streak by ABC's Good Morning America

The show's new direction will stress "substance, uplift, connection." The first and perhaps most important part of that mandate has been evident in a series of exclusive interviews in recent months: Paula Deen (which the TV chef canceled and Matt Lauer worked hard to re-book); Bradley Manning lawyer David Coombs who broke the news that Manning wanted to begin hormone therapy to live as a woman); Nancy Kerrigan (who is also participating in an NBC Sports documentary about the events surrounding the knee whack orchestrated by Tonya Harding at the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics); and Kate Snow's exclusive interview with controversial kidnap victim Hannah Anderson, which aired on Today Aug. 22.

The network's research showed that the core Today viewer – or the "lapsed viewers" as one executive characterized them – felt that the show lacked positivity. They also wanted to feel that Today connected to the concerns and issues they faced in their own lives.

"We are very firmly in the people business," said Turness. "We care about our viewers. If it matters to [them] it matters to us."

The conversation on social media will become a regular part of the program. The Orange Room – a new digital studio that will be manned by The Voice host Carson Daly – will enable multi-platform reporting from social media streams. But it will not be so that Daly can "give us the top ten viral videos of the day," cautioned Lauer. Rather it will be used as a tool to monitor the social media discussion around a certain issue. "I used to say, it's great to go outside [on the plaza] because we have an instant focus group," added Lauer. "Well that's nothing compared to what we have today."

Executive producer Don Nash described the clean modern set in earth tones (orange, brown) as a "hipster New York City apartment." A large curved orange sofa dominates the main interview area. There is a circular LED lighting grid that uses 80 percent less energy than the old set's lights. Al Roker have a fully interactive 82 inch touch screen that will also be used to enhance non-weather stories such as politics and elections. The 16X6 foot video wall can be dismantled into up to six smaller panels. The main anchor desk will by fully rotatable to face the windows on the plaza where the public gathers with signs. On Monday, the show will open with the anchors facing the crowd on the plaza. 

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The new set, said Lauer, is a "great component for what we do. But it's just a set." Lauer has been through five set changes during nearly two decades on the show. "We've come up with a better understanding of what our mission is each day and perhaps just as importantly, what our mission isn't," he said, adding that the show was "occupying a space that was too wide."

Lauer said he's fully committed to Today. One executive confided that the network's market study revealed that despite the backlash and negative media attention surrounding the transition from Ann Curry to Savannah Guthrie, Lauer remains the show's favorite personality. 

Lauer's NBC contract expires at the end of 2014. As he was ruminating on a new deal with NBC News - signed in April 2012 - he considered rejoining former Today co-anchor Katie Couric in daytime and also talked to ABC News president Ben Sherwood about joining the rival news division. And he's been mentioned as an heir apparent to Alex Trebek on Jeopardy! But he says he has no plans to leave Today. "The new direction of the show has me more invigorated than I've been in a long time," he said. 

E-mail: Marisa.Guthrie@thr.com
Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie