The team from ABC's Good Morning America sent a bucket of golf balls to Matt Lauer to congratulate him on his new deal to remain at NBC's Today. But the game for ratings leadership will only get more intense.
Lauer's new agreement keeps him in the coanchor chair of the morning show for four years and includes a program development deal, which could give him an ownership stake in a syndicated show outside of Today, TV Guide Magazine has learned. The contract could earn him in the neighborhood of $100 million, according to people familiar with the deal. One idea already being kicked around is spinning off Lauer's regular segment "Today's Professionals," in which he spars over hot-button issues with a panel that includes Star Jones, Donny Deutsch and Dr. Nancy Snyderman. The segment could also be developed into a fifth hour of Today.
NBC was ready to do whatever was necessary to keep Lauer on board. Today is the most profitable program on NBC and Lauer, a coanchor since 1997, is considered essential in keeping it No. 1 against a surging GMA. "There is no question he is the driving force on that show," says one talent agent. "He has real leverage." Lauer, who many believed was out the door a few months ago, also realized that Today is one of the last broadcast platforms left that matters. "He didn't want to become irrelevant," the agent adds.
Lauer may be richer, but his job won't get any easier. GMA has been closing in on Today, which has won every week in the ratings since December 1995. The gap between the two has narrowed to its smallest margin since 2005 — just 119,000 viewers — and GMA raised the stakes during the week of April 2 by having former Today coanchor Katie Couric fill in for vacationing Robin Roberts. Today fought back, beginning the week with a visit from a "legend" from the show's past — former coanchor Meredith Vieira, who announced she'll be part of NBC's Summer Olympics coverage. On April 3, Sarah Palin cohosted, generating attention and strong ratings. Today executive producer Jim Bell says his program "was respectfully motivated by the challenge" of competing against Couric and willing to take some chances. "It was very gratifying that a 60-year-old show can create buzz like that," he adds.
Today will securely fend off GMA when the ratings tally for Couric's week comes in, but GMA is not about to take its foot off the gas. "We will never stop trying to win," says executive producer Tom Cibrowski. "It will be a momentous occasion when we get there." Cibrowski believes viewers are responding to "an on-air team that has completely clicked." GMA has also skillfully tapped into the ABC audience's interest in Dancing With the Stars. "It's a show that has unusually high popularity among morning-show viewers and older viewers," says Bell, who has seen Today lose to GMA on the mornings after Dancing airs.
With Lauer signed, Today will try to strengthen its hand in other ways. Ryan Seacrest, who had discussions with NBC about taking over Today had Lauer left, will have a role on the program as part of his new deal with NBC Universal; he'll also cover the Olympics for NBC in prime time. There has also been speculation about the future of Lauer's coanchor, Ann Curry, whose performance has been under scrutiny. "They have to get more energy out of that team," says one NBC News insider. But Curry is extremely popular with many longtime viewers, which is why any change in her status would have to be handled with extreme care. Bell believes Curry has been treated unfairly in press accounts and calls her a "beloved member of the Today family."