Matt Lauer on His 36-Hour 'Today' Negotiation, Ann Curry and NBC's Trayvon Martin Mistake

Ruven Afanador

The most powerful face in news appears on the special New York issue of The Hollywood Reporter, where he discusses his conversations with Katie Couric about joining her show and reveals "GMA's" odd gift to him.

This story can be read in full in the April 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter Magazine featuring THR's list of the 35 Most Powerful People in Media.

It is Friday, April 6, and Matt Lauer is pawing through a stack of newspapers in his dressing room above Today’s Studio 1A. He scans a New York Times article about Keith Olbermann’s nasty legal battle with Al Gore and the executives at Current, the latest in a string of former employers for the volatile cable news host. “Olbermann is suing Current for $70 million,” says Lauer, betraying a hint of disbelief.

Of course, the most famous face of the morning doesn’t mention the day’s other big-money media headline: his signing of a four-year contract with NBC’s Today for a reported $25 million a year. (Lauer won’t comment on the dollar figure.) Earlier, at 7:09 a.m., Ann Curry announced on air that her 54-year-old co-host was staying at the top-rated morning show, capping months of speculation about his future on the franchise, one that funnels more than half a billion dollars a year into NBC News coffers.

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“I should have retired,” he jokes, as he contemplates his evening plans -- the Bruce Springsteen concert at Madison Square Garden. “I have to nap to go to a rock concert... That’s how sad it is.”

Reminded that he has now missed his opportunity to sleep in for the foreseeable future, he smiles: “There will be other chances.”

It won’t be soon enough for rivals at ABC’s Good Morning America, who have smelled blood in the morning waters since Meredith Vieira stepped down from Today in May 2011. Having closed the ratings gap -- GMA was just 119,000 viewers behind for the week ending March 26 (its closest margin in seven years) -- the staff at the perennially second-place show held out hope that Lauer would decide to retire to the golf course and work on his 7 handicap. So this morning, an enormous glass bowl filled with Top Flight golf balls arrives at the Today studios with a congratulatory note from “The GMA Team”: “We thought you could have used these on the golf course...” Says Lauer facetiously, “Isn’t that nice.”

The fact that one man is so personally in the crosshairs of GMA -- and that his will-he-or-won’t-he contract talk makes national headlines -- speaks both to Lauer’s power and the transition of morning news into full-blown cultural marker-cum-revenue driver. If Lauer, a father of three young children who already was making $17 million a year, had pulled up stakes, morning news from 7 to 9 a.m. would have been thrown into chaos. His tenure has encompassed more than 16 years of consecutive ratings wins for Today, which might lead one to presume that the merry-go-round of female anchors is less critical than his stability.

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As The Hollywood Reporter's senior television editor Marisa Guthrie learned during multiple early morning visits with Lauer -- including in his immaculate third-floor Rockefeller Center office -- the Today host is now bound to his show's success.

Some of the other details from THR's Lauer cover story:

Lauer, who describes himself as “the most obnoxious creature of habit,” placed a call to NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke on April 4 to let him know he had decided to stay. “That set in motion a pretty intense number of hours,” recalls NBC News president Steve Capus. Lauer’s longtime agent Ken Lindner immediately began hammering out a contract with the company’s business affairs executives. Thirty-six hours later, the deal was done. “The only question was whether he wanted to continue to do the job and everything that it demands. That’s all that had to be decided,” says Capus, who adds that there was no haggling and very little negotiation at all. “His is a unique situation. We mutually agreed to something awfully fast.”

Before the Today deal, his former co-host reached out to Lauer about joining her on her ABC daytime talk show, bowing in September. “The opportunity for us to team up again would have been really exciting,” says Couric, who called her pitch a "pipe dream." Lauer confirms he considered: “I wasn’t just wasting time. There’s no crime in listening.”

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“I was vocally not one of the people who thought it was wrong,” he says of GMA recruiting his friend and former co-host to sit in for Robin Roberts. “I thought it was absolutely right. Katie hasn’t been here for six years. She had a completely different stop in between at CBS. She’s under contract at ABC News. She’s one of the best morning hosts ever. Why wouldn’t you use her on that show?”

In 2011, Today generated $484 million in ad revenue for the 7 to 9 a.m. hours alone, according to Kantar Media. All four weekday hours of Today pulled in $612 million in 2011, more than three times the $181 million of Nightly News. But the margin of victory ahead of GMA is smaller than it's been in years. So far this season, the total-viewer gap between Today and GMA is just over 500,000 and about 450,000 in the critical 25-to-54 demographic and GMA has grown its audience 5 percent to 4.9 million viewers. “They’ve been leaders for a billion weeks,” says ABC News president Ben Sherwood of Today. (Actually, 852 weeks as of April 6, but who’s counting?)

Before resigning with Today, Lauer used the recent stunt casting of Ryan Seacrest to playfully quash the rumors that the American Idol host was in line for Lauer’s job, a story first floated in December in The Wall Street Journal. The subsequent media speculation it spurred rankles Lauer. “Ninety-five percent of the things I have seen in print or heard said on the radio or on television or seen on websites about me and the show and the future are incorrect,” he says. When it’s pointed out that the Journal is a reputable publication, not a fast and loose gossip site, he laughs: “Like they actually get things right?”

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“We’re all frustrated by the press. We’re part of the press, but we don’t like to live in it. I read the rumors and I know there is a cottage industry meanness out there. I love Ann. I’ve known her for 20 years. I think we have a kind of sister-brother thing, maybe sister-brother from different parents,” laughs Lauer. “We’re not at all alike. But I feel comfortable alongside her.” But Lauer says his partnership with Curry “is still a transition. I think the chemistry is good. People have to get used to the fact that it’s not what it was eight months ago [or] eight years ago. Every team is different. And people need to give us a chance to be different.”

“Of course," he says. "I miss her as a person mostly. I miss the dynamic.” Each time Vieira returns to the NBC News studios, she trashes Lauer’s dressing room using bright red lipstick to scribble profanities on the mirror. “That’s one of my little fetishes,” says Vieira with a laugh. “I’m trying to improve his vocabulary. I only write what I feel like he can handle.”

Unemployed and forced to move out of Manhattan, Lauer famously applied to work as a tree trimmer before getting the offer from New York’s NBC flagship WNBC that would ultimately lead to his Today gig: “I rented this tiny little cottage, and I sat there with my dog and waited for the phone to ring. I was devastated."

"This was without question the biggest interview of Matt Lauer’s life," recalls former Today executive producer Jeff Zucker of Lauer's meeting with the then first lady. Bill Clinton had issued his finger-wagging “I did not have sex with that woman” denial over Monica Lewinsky the night before. Hillary Clinton then infamously told Lauer that she and her husband were the targets of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Says Zucker: “Matt did an incredible job with exactly the right tone and all the right questions. Nobody ever questioned Matt’s ability after that.”

Despite Lauer's efforts to steer the Today broadcast, mistakes still occur: A misleadingly edited Trayvon Martin 911 call on the March 27 broadcast of Today put NBC News on the defensive. The network apologized, then fired the producer responsible for editing the piece, which was reported by correspondent Ron Allen. “It’s not acceptable,” says Lauer. “It was sloppy, and it was wrong.”

Read the complete THR cover story here >>