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At a performance review last month, brass revealed the results of recent focus groups — involving hundreds of viewers — with Today staffers.
“What matters most is the anchor connection to the audience; what we need to work on is the connection,” staffers were reportedly told.
While Lauer was not mentioned by name, The Times suggests he is the “anchor” to whom NBC execs were referring.
“What they meant was Matt, but no one would say it,” an unidentified senior staff member tells the paper.
Several attendees tell The Times that the mood at the meeting, which came 10 months after Today lost its longtime No. 1 standing to ABC’s Good Morning America, was “anxious.” Lauer was not present at the meeting.
The news also comes less than a year after Ann Curry was forced out of her co-anchor position, with an emotional on-air departure that made it clear she wasn’t quite ready to give up the job. Lauer took most of the blame for her ouster, and it didn’t help matters when the two reunited for the first time on-camera at the Summer Olympics. While their on-air reunion was brief, critics called it “uneasy” and full of “tension” and noted that Curry was “polite but distant” to Lauer.
Steve Capus, the former NBC News president, defended his longtime colleague in a recent interview with The Daily Beast.
“He was quietly and publicly a supporter of Ann’s throughout the entire process,” Capus said. “It is unfair that Matt has shouldered an undue amount of blame for a decision he disagreed with.”
For his part, Lauer said he didn’t feel like his bosses handled the exit in the most appropriate way.
“I don’t think the show and the network handled the transition well,” Lauer said. “You don’t have to be Einstein to know that. … It clearly did not help us. We were seen as a family, and we didn’t handle a family matter well.”
Lauer signed a $25 million contract — the most lucrative deal ever in morning TV — in April, a week before Today fell to second place in the morning-show ratings for the first time in 16 years. It’s believed that the contract runs through at least 2014.
Lauer’s Q Score, a measure of likability, has dropped from a 19 in September 2011 to a nine in January, which is less than GMA co-anchor George Stephanopoulos, according to The Times, though NBC execs said its focus-group findings dispute that.
As The Times notes, rumors are swirling that Lauer, 55, could be replaced by a younger host like Willie Geist, 37, or David Gregory, 42. Lauer became co-host of Today in 1997.
“We are aware of all the ridiculous rumors and gossip,” said Alex Wallace, the NBC News executive in charge of Today, told The Times. “We would like Matt Lauer to be in the chair as long as he would like to be. We hope that’s for many years to come.”
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