NBC News Chief on Ann Curry's 'Today' Departure: 'It Was Not Where Her Real Passion Was' (Exclusive)

Ann Curry Savannah Guthrie - H 2012
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Ann Curry Savannah Guthrie - H 2012

"She’s completely endearing," Steve Capus says of replacement Savannah Guthrie, whom he compares to Mary Tyler Moore.

NBC News on Friday made a big bet on Savannah Guthrie, naming the former White House correspondent and chief legal analyst co-host of a franchise that brought in more than $600 million worth of advertising last year. And executives are banking that the new Today team -- which officially bows July 9 -- will turn the page on a rocky chapter in the show’s recent history.

Guthrie, who since last year has been co-host of the 9 a.m. hour of Today with Al Roker and Natalie Morales, has appeared frequently in the earlier hours of the show as well, filling in on the news desk for Morales and for Ann Curry on the couch next to Lauer. It was a particularly quick apprenticeship, especially at NBC News, where seamless anchor transitions -- Katie Couric to Meredith Vieira on Today and Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams on Nightly News -- have been a signature accomplishment.

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Guthrie joined Today last year after less than four years at NBC News. She has become the news division’s go-to reporter on legal issues and filled in for Williams on Nightly and David Gregory on Meet the Press. She’ll be at the Meet the Press roundtable on Sunday to address the Supreme Court’s decision on President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, among other topics.

“She really distinguished herself during the time she was at the White House," NBC News president Steve Capus told The Hollywood Reporter on Friday. "I think we have thrown our weight behind someone who is a serious journalist, who is very smart, but not just book smart. She has the ability to communicate clearly and in an approachable manner.

“Someone around here likened her to Mary Tyler Moore, which I thought was kind of funny," he continued. "She’s completely endearing. She’s an ultimate team player.”

For now, Guthrie will continue to co-host the 9 a.m. hour, which means that, the Today on-air team -- save for Lauer -- will remain constant from 7 to 10 a.m. Capus is in no hurry to make any additional personnel decisions in the near term. But he did not rule out Willie Geist, who hosts an early-morning program on MSNBC and often fills in for Lauer and others on Today, getting more visibility on the morning franchise.

“This is a guy who is comfortable doing morning television, and we’ll showcase him,” said Capus. “We have some really great people at NBC News, and I want to make sure the Today show is drawing on the considerable strengths of this news division.”

He singled out Morales as the glue at 9 o’clock. “People overlook her significant contributions to this broadcast," Capus said. "She’s a big part of the success of that 9 a.m. hour.”

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Guthrie's ascendancy and Curry's exit caps more than a week of intense scrutiny and months of anonymously sourced blog posts purporting behind-the-scenes unrest at Today

"You can go crazy trying to figure out where the leaks come from," said Capus. "It’s like punching at ghosts. At the end of the day, we know the real story of this news division. Often the leak that we’re asked to respond to is completely off base. Yet, if we comment on it, suddenly it becomes a story."

It remains to be seen what, if any, effect Curry’s early exit from the show -- and her extremely raw and tearful farewell -- will have on Today's ratings fortunes. Curry will travel to London for the Summer Olympics, and her "fancy new title," as she described it on-air Thursday, means she'll get "tickets to every big story [I] want to cover." 

“Ann wears her emotions on her sleeve, and that’s what she was doing [Thursday],” said Capus of Curry's farewell, which was delivered live during the final minutes of the 8 a.m. hour of Today. “But I think people heard the message loud and clear that she’s continuing her relationship with NBC News.”

Asked why Curry did not work out as a morning TV host, Capus allowed that her weakness was convincingly presiding over morning TV staples such as cooking segments and celebrity interviews that make up a big chunk of the job.

“I think it was not where her real passion was,” he said. “In her heart of hearts, I think she would admit that. I think her real passion is built around reporting on international stories. It’s tough to convey a sincere interest in something if you don’t possess it. We live in a HD world. Dan Rather used to say the camera never blinks. Well, this is an HD world now, and the camera picks up everything. And you could tell with her, you can tell with any anchor, whether they’re into it or not. And I think we’ve now come up with a role that will play to her strengths.”

Curry has accepted a new multiyear deal as international correspondent/anchor contributing to all NBC News broadcasts. She'll also appear on Today as anchor-at-large. Of course, many media observers questioned whether Curry had the right attributes and personality for the job when she inherited it from Vieira in June 2011. But Capus maintains that after 14 years on Today as the show’s newsreader and fill-in host, “she deserved a shot.”

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“We gave her a year to prove herself, and ultimately we came to the conclusion that she had played at the highest level she could," said Capus. "When you’re in the major leagues of our profession, you’ve got to continue to be at peak performance in order to stay there.

“But my belief is a year from now when Ann has a shelf full of new awards for her journalistic work, she’s going to recognize that this is a real opportunity for the next phase of her career to go in a direction that suits her strengths," he added. "That’s what we want for her, and that’s what she wants.”

Email: Marisa.Guthrie@thr.com; Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie