Despite what you may have read, not everybody hates Matt Lauer.
So says Today executive producer Don Nash, who recently sat in on a focus group of female morning-show viewers. When they were asked what would make them stop watching the NBC program, "every one of them said, 'If Matt Lauer were to leave,'" Nash says. "Their opinions didn't square with what we had been reading in the papers and on websites."
Lauer has faced harsh criticism over his perceived role in the ouster of former coanchor Ann Curry, who was replaced by Savannah Guthrie last summer. While NBC execs insist that Lauer wasn't involved in Curry's tear-filled departure, he didn't help his case by telling reporters he favored bringing Katie Couric back to the show when Meredith Vieira left in June 2011. Some TV news insiders who have worked with Lauer believe his good-guy image has been irreparably damaged by the way Curry's exit played out.
But removing Lauer could serve only to alienate the people who are still watching Today rather than ratings leader Good Morning America on ABC. "I think it could be much worse without him," says Nash. "I can tell you unequivocally that the staff is not divided over whether Matt should stay or go. This staff loves Matt."
NBC News executives also insist Lauer's role is secure — despite the fact that one of them made a call to CNN's Anderson Cooper to gauge his interest in the coanchor job down the road. While Cooper is said not to be interested, it's not unrealistic for NBC to start thinking about a successor to Lauer, who has an option in his contract to leave at the end of 2014. "We hope Matt stays forever," Nash says, "but you're always looking for talent because you want the person to grow into the job and you want some time to groom them."
Amid the ongoing controversy, there are signs of a ratings rebound for Today. During the week of March 18, the program trailed GMA by 355,000 viewers, the smallest margin this year. Could viewers be tuning in to see what the tumult is about? "That's always a possibility," says Nash. "But I'd like to think we've really found our groove. Matt and Savannah are in a good place, and we're comfortable with the programming. I told my staff, 'The best answer to all this negative press and this whirlwind of criticism is to win.' So each and every day, we're putting on the best morning show that we can."