Ann Curry learned that you're a member of the Today family until the ratings say you're not.
Curry spent her final morning as co-anchor with Matt Lauer on Thursday, giving a tearful goodbye before heading to a new role as the program's anchor-at-large and NBC News national and international correspondent (which came with a new long-term contract). Savannah Guthrie, NBC News legal correspondent and co-anchor of the third hour of Today for the last year, will be named as Lauer's new partner on Friday, according to sources familiar with the plan.
Curry, who joined Today in 1997 as a newsreader, was part of the on-air team during its most dominant years. But after 13 months, she is only the third anchor in the program's 60-year history whose tenure lasted less than two years (the others are John Chancellor and Deborah Norville). How did this transition go wrong?
When Curry was passed over for the co-anchor job in favor of Meredith Vieira in 2006, she wasn't happy. But she put her head down and never complained publicly. She remained as the news anchor and doubled down on her reporting of humanitarian crises around the globe, coverage she often initiated herself. She risked her safety for ratings sweep stunts, like flying to the South Pole. Curry's longevity and commitment to Today enabled her to develop a deep connection with the program's viewers, and she consistently scored high in audience research studies. "Ann is the ultimate team player and she always has been," says one former NBC News executive.
Once it became apparent that Vieira wanted to leave the show, NBC News executives believed Curry should have her shot at the anchor chair — even though there was a sense that her on-air relationship with Lauer was not as strong as her predecessors. Lauer and Katie Couric had a unique, playful rapport that made Today wildly popular during their nine-year tenure. Vieira, a serious journalist who showed she could cut loose on The View, was also comfortable sparring with Lauer. Curry was never seen as having the same kind of easy-going dynamic with him; being glib or breezy has never been her style. She is earnest, empathetic and compassionate — all desirable traits for the kind of reporting and storytelling that have distinguished her career. "Her emotional connection to people in taped pieces is great because you can edit it," the former executive notes.
But any initial doubts about how well Curry clicked with Lauer were outweighed by fears that passing her over again would generate the same reaction as the debacle that took place in 1989 when the program replaced a still-beloved Jane Pauley with Deborah Norville. Today went into a devastating ratings dive, losing its lead to ABC's Good Morning America. It took six years to get it back. The wrath of the loyal morning viewer can run deep, and the institutional memory of those who work on Today runs long. "We didn't want another Norville," says one top executive who supported the decision to give the job to Curry. There was also no attractive alternative inside or outside the network. Says one former NBC insider: "The thinking was, 'If not Ann, who?"
The concerns about the on-screen comfort level between Curry and Lauer heightened as Good Morning America caught Today in the ratings in April for the first time in 16 years. A large part of those GMA gains can be credited to the boost it gets from Dancing With the Stars. But NBC was unwilling to accept a ratings decline on its most profitable program and the dip happened on Curry's watch. Ideally, executives wanted to wait until the viewers were more familiar with Guthrie before putting her in the chair. But with Today front and center during NBC's coverage of the Summer Olympics in London, they will get to know her in a hurry.
Now NBC execs will sit tight as they wait to find out if there will be a viewer backlash over Curry's very public demotion. Curry had few supporters among snarky New York-based journalists and bloggers, but viewers in what network execs call "the flyover states" appreciated her efforts. "She comes across to me as a super sincere person who cares about every issue that's she covering," says Stephen Crowley, an Iraq war veteran in Phoenix who launched an online petition to keep Curry on Today. Over several days he gathered more than 22,000 supporters.
Today will not be the only program experiencing turbulence in the near future. Good Morning America co-anchor Robin Roberts will be off the show for several months this fall when she undergoes a bone marrow transplant. While likable newsreader Josh Elliott has given new energy to GMA, Roberts has been the constant on the show over the years, and her popularity and profile has risen with the program's recent ratings surge. And when things are working well on a morning program — which depends on consistency — change is never welcome.
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