NBC decided it's better for the Today show to be in second place with Matt Lauer than without him.
After surviving an ugly media pile on over the messy departure of Ann Curry from Today and the program's fall from first place, he's signed on to remain co-anchor for a few more years. The extension, which comes months before his current deal is up, reflects how profits are more important than bragging rights over who is No. 1 in the ratings.
NBC News could have chosen to let Lauer wrap it up after 17 years on the program and try to shake things up with a new co-anchor. But whenever the news division did research on the viewers watching the show, the answer was the same: If Matt goes, we'll stop watching.
Sure, a lot of viewers left because they were unhappy with Curry's treatment and blamed Lauer. But anyone who felt that way is already gone. The ratings decline at Today bottomed out and the numbers are climbing back up, even if the show is still well behind ABC's Good Morning America.
Even in second place, Today remains a profit machine and still gets a higher rate for its commercials than GMA. Any tinkering with the anchor team with the long-term goal of trying to get back to No. 1 simply wasn't worth it to NBC's bottom line oriented corporate parent Comcast. The company decided the status quo is better than the risk.
Lauer is been said to be happier with the tone of Today and the on-set atmosphere in recent months, especially compared after the tumult over Curry, who left in June 2012. Despite getting slimed by some media reports, Lauer's generally positive image among viewers and in the TV news business held up. Several industry sources said his salary will remain in the range of $22 million to $25 million a year under his new deal. "They fell out of first place and he's still treated like a king," says one NBC insider. "He still has a terrific life."
Can Lauer bring Today back to No. 1? With a longer deal locked in, the Today team will be stable when co-anchor Savannah Guthrie goes on maternity leave later this year. Guthrie has been comfortable sharing her preparations for first time motherhood on the air, and very public pregnancies have helped past morning anchors such as Jane Pauley and Joan Lunden become more popular with audiences. Keeping Lauer and Guthrie intact could mean a boost to the show after she returns.
Lauer's decision to stick around could have other implications for Today. Willie Geist, a co-host in the show's 9 a.m., hour was high on the list of possible successors to Lauer's chair. Geist, whose deal with NBC News is up next year, is likely to draw some interest from CBS News. Chris Licht, the executive producer for CBS This Morning, worked with Geist at MSNBC's Morning Joe. Geist is seen at CBS News as someone who would work well in the more news-driven format of CBS This Morning, which has gained critical accolades but still trails ABC and NBC in the ratings by a wide margin in the 25-to-54 age group that advertisers want to reach with news programs.
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