Matt Lauer's 'Today' Firing Gives NBC a Chance to Remake a $500M Franchise (Guest Column)

Matt Lauer -serious 8 - Getty-H 2017
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News analyst Andrew Tyndall writes that NBC News brass have the opportunity to test a longstanding myth that the success of a news program depends on its most well-compensated talent. 

It is a cherished myth — beloved by celebrity journalists, their agents, their publicists and the television networks that promote them — that the ratings success, and therefore the profitability, of a franchise news program hinges on its audience's attraction to its most highly paid talent.

An entire pyramid-shaped economic model and career structure rests on the conventional wisdom that this is no myth, but the most efficient and most popular mechanism for delivering TV news. Matt Lauer, pocketing a reported annual income of $20 million after 20 years in the anchor chair of NBC News' Today franchise, was exhibit A for this economic model.

Lauer was the epitome of the rewards that this system offered and the inspiration for ambitious would-be TV superstars upon leaving journalism school. He was lavishly rewarded for his combination of quick-witted charm and personable interviewing, with a dash of tenacity when called upon. His job also required that he exude a certain sex appeal to Today's largely female audience, that twinkle in the eye to ease the shock of somber overnight news developments.

Live by the sword, die by the sword: Lauer had a job that required the projection of sex appeal, but needed to behave at work with utmost sexual propriety. It turned out to be a fine line that he was unable to walk.

Lauer's sudden defenestration from the Today window overlooking Rockefeller Plaza offers an opportunity for NBC News management to test the validity of the cherished salary pyramid myth.

It has already been challenged in a different time slots at both ABC World News Tonight and NBC Nightly News. At both newscasts, a highly paid superstar anchor has been succeeded by a (still well-remunerated) working journalist as newsreader: Diane Sawyer by David Muir, Brian Williams by Lester Holt. NBC's newscast has suffered a marginal decline in its audience levels; ABC's hardly any at all. In both instances, it is possible that the adjustment of the salary structure to 21st century realities has improved the economic viability of both newscasts.

The networks' morning shows are supposed to be different. They have a younger, more advertiser-friendly audience than the nightly newscasts, so more money is at stake. Their interview-oriented, studio-based format means that they have lower out-of-pocket newsgathering costs; accordingly, their anchors' salaries represent a higher proportion. Their breakfast time slot renders the personalities of their anchor teams integral to their audience's wake-up routine.

All these factors would have been central when Lauer's agents hammered out his mega-contract with NBC News management. Lauer had a years-long rapport with his audience. His was a familiar and trusted face in their kitchens dating back to his junior partnership with Katie Couric. They could not risk alienating Lauer's loyal female fans by replacing him with a cut-rate fresh face … even though his feud with Ann Curry may have made him seem less female-friendly … even though his boyish charm had now turned decidedly avuncular, at age 59, for the target demographic, which is aged 25 to 54.

Presumably the accountants at Comcast, the owners of NBC News, are right now running the numbers: What level of audience erosion can Today afford, and yet still increase its profits, by pocketing Lauer's salary rather than paying for a superstar replacement? Today's annual revenues are estimated to be between $450 million and $500 million, so his departure has certainly eased a considerable strain on its overhead.

Consider three possible scenarios. Each envisages a named talent on the NBC News payroll, but think of each name as a representative model for the future of Today rather than a literal candidate.

A radical departure from the pyramidal salary structure that Lauer represented would be to promote a young, personable male anchor, to shift Today's studio from a superstar sofa surrounded by acolytes to a team of interchangeable equals. Willie Geist could play the young sidekick to Savannah Guthrie in much the same way that Lauer himself did, when he first replaced Bryant Gumbel to sit next to Couric.

It could be that the lingering negative impact of Lauer's sexual improprieties requires a bolstering of Today's image as a female-friendly editorial space. Instead of addressing this problem by inserting a fresh young man, Geist-style, Today may decide to double down on a feminist response by promoting Megyn Kelly from the show's third hour to its first. Kelly has already made the #MeToo moment a signature of her arrival at NBC News from the also-sexism-plagued Fox News Channel. Instead of a male-and-female anchor team, Kelly and Guthrie would offer the blonde-and-brunette.

Or the conventional wisdom of the charming, superstar, celebrity male anchor could find itself surviving — and another avuncular, astronomically well-paid man could slide into the seat that Lauer has just vacated. Williams is already on the NBC News payroll, paying penance late at night on MSNBC for his fibs and embellishments. His promotion to Today would tell us that the belief in rapport was still central to NBC News' concept of television journalist, still more important than either credibility or economic right-sizing.

Tyndall is an independent news analyst and publisher of the Tyndall Report.