June 28, 2012, 9:56 AM76 Comments
A Low-Key Transition for ‘Today’ Hosts
By BRIAN STELTER
11:54 p.m. | Updated On Friday morning, Savannah Guthrie is scheduled to be sitting beside Matt Lauer on the “Today” show — and once again, NBC’s ability to pull off talent transitions will be put to the test.
Ms. Guthrie is expected to succeed Ann Curry on “Today,” a hugely popular but now highly vulnerable morning show that is a profit center for NBCUniversal and its parent company Comcast.
Ms. Curry tearfully announced her forced exit from the “Today” co-host chair on Thursday morning, ending one phase of the network’s plan to reinvigorate the show and beginning another phase that involves Ms. Guthrie and possibly other changes to the cast.
Ms. Guthrie has been a co-host of the 9 a.m. hour of “Today” for a year. As of Thursday evening, she had not signed a contract to become the co-host of the 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. hours, and NBC had not confirmed that she would be taking Ms. Curry’s position on the show. But those moves are seen as inevitable by people inside NBC, as evidenced by the fact that she was set to fill in for Ms. Curry on Friday.
Those people, who insisted on anonymity because they feared losing their jobs for discussing internal deliberations, said Thursday that the priority now was protecting Mr. Lauer and Ms. Guthrie from the wrath of Ms. Curry’s fans, thousands of whom posted angry comments online after her announcement.
For that reason, Ms. Guthrie’s promotion will be introduced relatively quietly, with little of the fanfare that accompanied Ms. Curry’s elevation to the role one year ago or Meredith Vieira’s arrival in 2006. The change probably will not be announced on the show until July 9, according to one of the people.
“They’re not going to do themselves any good if they blow it out,” said Frank J. Radice, a former NBC executive who ran the marketing campaign for Ms. Vieira, who succeeded Katie Couric at that time.
NBC made the most of that transition, complete with a theme song called “It’s a New Day Today” with a “Welcome Meredith” airplane banner that was flown around the island of Manhattan. But this time, given Ms. Curry’s sudden and awkward exit, he said the smartest thing would be “not to draw attention to a change in anchors but to let that change in anchors just happen.”
NBC seemed to do that on Thursday, scheduling only a few minutes at the end of the show for Ms. Curry’s announcement. “This is not as I ever expected to leave this couch,” Ms. Curry said, indicating to viewers that leaving was not entirely her choice.
Ms. Curry will become the “anchor at large” for “Today,” a roving correspondent role that was offered to her more than a month ago by executives in an effort to move her off the morning show, which is under recent ratings pressure from ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
That show beat “Today” for several weeks in April and May, but “Today” has won for the last four weeks, giving the show a dose of confidence ahead of the Summer Olympics, which NBC will televise in four weeks.
In the past, NBC, and in particular its news division, prided itself on seamless handoffs like Ms. Couric to Ms. Vieira and, a few years before that, from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams as the “NBC Nightly News” anchor.
But Thursday seemed like a divorce more than anything else, and it brought to mind the entertainment division’s botched transition involving Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien in 2010, one that has left Mr. O’Brien bitter.
In that case, however, Mr. O’Brien left NBC and wound up with a new late-night show on the cable channel TBS. In this case, Ms. Curry is sticking with NBC and is picking seven staff members to work with her on news reports and special projects.
Steve Capus, the president of NBC News, said in an internal memo on Thursday that “this was not a farewell from “Today“ for Ms. Curry. “Ann’s reporting will be showcased on ‘Today’ as well as all other NBC News broadcasts,” he wrote. “Outside of the confines of the studio, she’ll have more freedom for those pursuits.” His memo concluded with the words, “Simply put, she is the absolute best person for this job.”
Brian Stelter writes about television and digital media. Follow @brianstelter on Twitter and facebook.com/brianstelter