'Today' Chief: Transition Was 'Tough,' but It's Not Matt Lauer's Fault

21. Jim Bell
Virginia Sherwood/NBC

Executive producer of Today

As the EP of Today -- all 23-hours-a-week of it -- Bell puts on more news programming than anyone else in town. The show remains NBC News' cash cow, having brought in a half-billion dollars in ad revenue last year, but it's also the most important destination on telelvision for authors, Hollywood celebrities and other boldface names who depend on it to sell their wares.

"We made some tough calls," Jim Bell tells THR. "We’re taking some shots. But that’s OK. We have the right team in place now. We’re just trying to move forward here."

Today show executive producer Jim Bell and his team have been the subject of intense media scrutiny since the snapping of their 16-plus year morning news winning streak by Good Morning America in April helped to precipitate what became a very public and awkward co-host transition from Ann Curry to Savannah Guthrie. The cast change has not improved the still formidable franchise's ratings fortunes; GMA has picked off four weekly wins the all-important 25-54 demographic so far.

Bell, who also is executive producer of NBC Sports' Olympics coverage (he's heading to Sochi, Russia, in a couple of weeks for a planning trip for the 2014 Winter Games) breaks his silence about the transition, the gossip, his future at NBCUniversal and his relationship with Curry.

"We've been [the target] of some unflattering and in some cases wildly untrue stories," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. "We’re taking some shots, we made some tough calls and some changes. But that’s OK. We have the right team in place now; we love our show. We’re just trying to move forward here."

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The Hollywood Reporter: There have been rumors about your future. Are you staying as executive producer of Today or are you going to be promoted to some vaunted position within NBCUniversal?

Jim Bell: [Laughs] I really don’t know. [The speculation] has been very frustrating. I’m the EP of the Today show and the Olympics, and I love both. That is more than a full-time job. And that’s the end of that.

THR: Do you think the way the transition between Ann Curry and Savannah Guthrie was handled might have dinged Matt Lauer’s reputation?

Bell: I think it’s really unfortunate how that played out. And obviously the transition didn’t go quite as we had hoped. And Matt, I need to say for the record, really should not bear any of the blame for that. I’m the executive producer of the show. He’s not. He’s the public face of the show, so he’s taken some of this. But it has been wrong. And that fact should be corrected.

THR: How do you overcome that? Do you think some viewers were turned off by that?

Bell: I suppose. But I think really one of the great things about being on the air every day is you get to show who you are and you get to put on smart, relevant, important programming. And Matt is probably the best guy to ever host morning television.

THR: Today became the target of criticism for running an interview with Kris Jenner about Jenner’s breast augmentation during the 9/11-anniversary moment of silence. Do you regret the decision?

Bell: Yeah, probably. But I think more important than getting into one segment or one show is to invite a broader comparison of [Today and Good Morning America]. The competition in this case has chosen to do a very different show. If you watch them side-by-side, you’ll see. It’s worked for them in the short term. But we’re not going to do anything that’s going to hurt our brand and the legacy of the Today show. We’re going to stick to our knitting and be who we are. We think Savannah is a great host and works well with everybody, and we love, frankly, having Ann in the role that she’s in now. She continues to bring prestige to NBC News and the Today show. She made news this morning interviewing the president of Libya. Again, I made a tough call. It was a difficult change, but it was an important and needed change. The show’s been around a very long time; it will continue to be around for a very long time. And we made a tough call for what we think is the right reason for the long run of the show.

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THR: What are the other areas where you think the show needs improvement?

Bell: One of the things that we really benefit from is to be part of a larger news-gathering operation with cable channels including MSNBC and CNBC and our international news-gathering operation. I think we have advantages that certainly our network competitors don’t have. And I think that’s an important point to make as we’re drawing distinctions between the two shows. And I think we’ve got in Savannah someone who is relatively unknown in the grand scheme. So I think we can definitely start to show her off in a bigger, broader way and have America get to know her more. That’s something we’re confident will pay great dividends because she’s great.

THR: When does Willie Geist start on the nine o’clock hour and is Savannah going to continue in a regular role at 9 a.m.?

Bell: [Geist will start] pretty soon. I think Willie’s got great versatility. We think he’s great and works well with us. We’re still sorting out Savannah’s schedule. She will continue to pop up in the 9 as she has.

THR: Does Willie’s promotion make him the heir apparent for Matt?

Bell: No, I don’t think we’re saying that. 

THR: How do you think Ryan Seacrest did during the Olympics? Are you talking to him about doing more on Today?

Bell: I think Ryan was wonderful for the Olympics. We worked him pretty hard over in London; we had him running all over the place. And he did a great job. And we want to continue to find ways to use him despite his very busy schedule.

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THR: Are you frustrated by Today’s ratings? Do you need to get the show back on top in a steady way?

Bell: I think it’s very important to step back a little bit and acknowledge that we were out there for 16-plus years winning every single week. It’s certainly one of the most impressive, improbable things that’s ever happened in television; I don’t even know what to compare it to. That was a great run and now we’ve got to get it back. We welcome the challenge. 

THR: When Ann made her first post-Today appearance with Matt during the Olympics, many media outlets pronounced it awkward. How did you feel about that?

Bell: First of all, I thought that stuff was so painfully written in advance. And unfortunately I think that’s been the case on more than one occasion over the last few months. We are very fortunate to have Ann’s unprecedented reporting skills and ability to do things like go into to Syria and interview the president of Libya; things that play to her strengths. And we’re all really happy about that.

THR: Have you cleared the air with Ann?

Bell: Sure, absolutely. She’s working. She was in Aurora. She was on the air this morning.

THR: But no one seems to want to let the transition go.

Bell: Well, I’m encouraging you to be the first one! Let’s start moving forward. We all know what the last few months have been like. We’re very proud to have her be part of our show. We think we’re doing a very smart, relevant show at a time in the world when that’s pretty important.

THR: Do you view the gossip and the anonymously sourced stories as just part of the territory, or is it distracting?

Bell: Of course, it’s going to come with the territory. We were out there as the leaders for many years. So no one’s crying foul about any stories as far as [the ratings]. But some of the stories that have just been wrong and silly about Matt being the anchor monster, that stuff is just laughable. I mean, come on. He’s gracious to every single person on the staff, from [NBCUniversal CEO] Steve Burke down to the person who is up at 1 a.m. hanging lights and pulling cable. That’s how he is. And he’s never changed.

THR: Another media narrative is that you have apparently forged a close relationship with Steve Burke.

Bell: We’ve talked about the Today show, sure. He’s head of the company. The Today show is obviously getting some attention. Of course I talk to him. I think some of that relationship stuff has been overwritten, and I don’t know what that’s about.

THR: How did it feel to be EP of Today when that streak was toppled?

Bell: I think the second or third week I was on the show, which was 7 1/2 years ago, we thought the streak [was going to end]. And I thought, "Oh well, I only got two weeks." Fortunately, we were able to keep it going for another 7 1/2 years. So on a personal level, I’m incredibly proud to have been part of it. The feeling was really one of great pride and accomplishment and achievement. People weren’t walking around here like it was a wake. It was great to be a part of [the winning streak]. But as has always been the case, this show is moving forward.

THR: You were a football player; you came to news from NBC Sports. Were you watching the Packers-Seahawks Monday Night Football game? And what did you think of the blown call by the replacement referees?

Bell: It’s well past my bedtime. I haven’t put on a helmet in many years, but as a former football player and somebody who has worked in sports television, it’s hard right now because people are so passionate about the NFL, particularly the Packers. In the Monday night game and the Sunday night game [during which the Patriots were penalized 24 times and ultimately lost by one point to the Ravens], to have those two things happen, has brought so much attention to it. It's now gone from the sports page to the front page. My kids are broken up about it. They don’t know what to do with their rotisserie teams.

THR: What’s your supreme ambition at NBCUni? Would you like to have some larger role at the news division or the sports division?

Bell: I’m very happy where I am. I think part of the daily grind here is you don’t allow yourself to think grand or long-term thoughts. We’re just sort of plugging along with the [Today] show. I love the show; it’s been part of my life. I can’t speak beyond that.

THR: Steve Burke hasn’t talked to you about a larger role at the company?

Bell: I’m the executive producer of the Today show.

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