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The show has fallen in the ratings, and Matt Lauer has become the person viewers blame for her ouster, with his popularity also dropping.
On Sunday, New York magazine posted a lengthy piece on the drama leading up to and after Curry’s exit, with a number of new revelations about the incident and her relationships with her colleagues. Here are 12:
1. Internal research showed that Lauer — not Curry — was losing favor with viewers. As ABC’s Good Morning America gained on Today, then-executive producer Jim Bell began blaming it on Curry, as did some of NBC’s affiliates, who began complaining in board meetings that Curry needed to go. But internal research conducted by SmithGeiger showed otherwise — that Lauer was perceived as less appealing than Curry. While onscreen, he looked “aloof, a little bit holier-than-thou and pompous,” says a former NBC executive who saw the reports. “He was becoming Bryant Gumbel.”
2. Curry didn’t take kindly to jokes from colleagues. Former Today co-host Katie Couric used to tease Curry about her clothes, but Curry took those remarks “badly.” And, in 2011, Lauer and producers played a prank on the cast by sending them to a fake magazine photo shoot, where the photographer had a meltdown and began firing his staffers. But Curry became “infuriated with Lauer and retreated to her dressing room,” New York magazine reports.
3. Lauer and Curry had no relationship off the air. In fact, they barely spoke. But Curry tried to form a relationship with him: When she was named co-host, she asked Lauer out to lunch to get some advice from him, but he “seemed to drag his feet scheduling it and Curry felt he didn’t offer much,” New York magazine reports. He soon began “getting more involved in the daily story lineup, getting into fights with producers and tearing the show up in the early-morning hours.” He also expressed how unhappy he was with Curry to a friend and spoke of cutting back on work.
4. Lauer saw the writing on the wall on Curry’s final day, even as cameras were rolling. “I think we all knew it at that moment,” he says. “And it just seemed like something — there was nothing we could do as it was happening, and we all felt bad about it.” In fact, the show soon lost half a million viewers as well as its No. 1 ranking to ABC’s Good Morning America after 16 years, resulting in a loss of millions of advertising dollars “overnight.” And Lauer himself became perceived as the person responsible for Curry’s ouster, fairly or not. Just this month, Chelsea Handler joked to him: “You have a worse reputation than I do.”
5. Lauer was first informed of Curry’s being let go in late February. NBC News president Steve Capus told Lauer that she was gone whether Lauer left or not. For his part, Lauer says he voiced concerns that it might hurt Today. But implicit in what Capus was saying was this: If he chose to stay, Curry would be gone. While her name never came up during contract negotiations, Lauer — with “maximum leverage” — “could easily have saved her” but didn’t. “To the contrary, in signing a new contract to remain at the show for at least two more years, he tacitly ratified the plan to remove her. Which doesn’t make him a horrible person — it makes him, for better or worse, a pro,” New York magazine opines. (The week after he re-signed,The Hollywood Reporter’s cover story with Lauer hit newsstands with the headline, “The Most Powerful Face in News.” After seeing it, he is said to have told THR’s Marisa Guthrie, who wrote the story, “You just hung a huge target on my back.”)
6. The rumors that Ryan Seacrest might replace Lauer were an insurance policy against Lauer leaving. NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke made it clear to Lauer that they didn’t want him to leave. In fact, the press leak about Seacrest angered Lauer, who found out about the leak while “being forced to stand outside the security gate at the White House Christmas party because Ann Curry had forgotten her driver’s license.”
7. Before re-signing with Today, he’d been talking seriously to Jeff Zucker about an idea for ABC. The duo were working closely on a talk show that would reteam Lauer with Couric (Zucker exec produces Couric’s daytime talker). Lauer actually met with Disney CEO Bob Iger, who actively tried to recruit Lauer. Iger, Zucker and ABC News president Ben Sherwood, in fact, at one point all thought the deal was done based on a conversation with Lauer’s agent. After Lauer negotiated his new two-year, $25 million-a-year contract to stay on Today, he told ABC he was staying put, and both Iger and Zucker were “infuriated.”
8. A power struggle erupted between Today EP Bell and NBC News chief Capus. Capus, concerned about Bell’s close relationship with Burke, began “sending mixed messages and sowing confusion, which made the trouble much harder to resolve,” according to New York magazine. Bell wanted Curry gone by the London Olympics, which kicked off in July, but Capus began telling her that she wasn’t the problem as he became “increasingly paranoid about Bell’s power and designs.” Capus, in fact, “fanned Curry’s hope that she could hang on longer and undermined Bell’s strategy of resetting the Today show cast during the Olympics.”
9. Curry, without an agent, received advice from numerous people. Those include former Today host Tom Brokaw. In the end, she got $12 million and her own production unit at NBC to leave the show. She was replaced by Savannah Guthrie.
10. Curry’s exit was even more dramatic that it appeared. Curry, who became very emotional on the air, insisted she write her own copy, telling Capus she wanted to “speak from the heart.” While some at NBC believe she “purposefully self-destructed to damage both Lauer and the show,” Curry “cried the entire way” to the airport after her final show. And the situation remained awkward. When she asked if she could send a note of sympathy to Robin Roberts, who was taking a leave of absence from GMA to get treatment for MDS, NBC execs told her no, “afraid she was trying to aid the enemy.” In late July, she refused to appear alongside Guthrie on the air, as she believed that Bell might have been “trying to exploit the event for image repair.”
11. Lauer has not spoken to Curry about clearing up the perception that he was to blame for her ouster. Why not? “Because I’m concentrating on doing the show — not concentrating on spinning the damage and trying to end the negativity on a daily basis,” he says.
12. Lauer believes Today will regain its status atop the morning-show pack. “I’m confident that the show we’re doing today is the one that will allow us to dig ourselves out of the hole,” he says.
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