On one of my first days at Good Morning America in 2011, after a 13 year run with NBC and the Today Show, George Stephanopoulos and I spoke in the hallway about, among other things, how good Matt Lauer is at what he does. His tone, transitions, questions, innate sensibility about when to push in an interview and when to back off, and his overall demeanor, we agreed, are picture perfect for morning television news.
None of that has changed even as gossip pages, tabloid headlines and media critics pile on Lauer as he has somehow transformed, in record time, from the media’s morning show prince to public pinata for the Today Show’s recent problems. Blamed for everything from poor ratings to Ann Curry‘s departure to becoming an “anchor animal,” there is now even a nonsensical report that he could be getting fired early next year.
There is no question that in morning show years, Good Morning America‘s ratings surge over the Today Show has been meteoric and at first blush it would seem entirely fair to point fingers at the $25 million man. Reportedly paid more than almost any top pro athlete, the show has long been structured around Matt, and as its on-air leader, when the show suffers he must accept responsibility, which he has. And yet Matt still may have been worth every penny to a show that nets about 250 million per year in profits. He was, and is, the defining player on the most successful morning franchise in American history.
The issues began when Meredith Vieira decided that she wanted to spend more time with her family and the show suddenly had to find a replacement, which is no easy feat. Up to that point, Matt and Meredith had been a winning combination following the long-time gold medal pairing of Matt and Katie Couric. Ann Curry, the long time newsreader, was the obvious choice. She was well liked by, and familiar to, the Today Show audience. The problem? It turned out that Matt and Ann never had the necessary yet almost indefinable on-air “chemistry” required of a morning show “couple.” I don’t know exactly what that means but, for whatever reason, they just didn’t seem to gel as America’s happy “first family” as their promos proclaimed.
Did Matt dislike Ann off set? I have no idea, but for a morning show to work, and for viewers to allow them into their home as they are brushing their teeth, the two lead figures must at least appear to be great pals on camera. That is not easy to fake and was never quite the case with Ann and Matt.
Unlike squishy matters such as “chemistry” and “connection,” ratings are objective, and the numbers fell fast. But maybe, just maybe “Matt dumps Ann” is a far sexier story line than “it didn’t work out.” Isn’t it possible that like many off-air set-ups or relationships that it, well, just didn’t quite work? Maybe individually they are great (which I believe), but the pairing was just never right? Sure, in a relationship there is usually one person who initiates the break up but its also true that sometimes people just don’t mesh.
What so many also seem to ignore is that while the Today Show was struggling to replace Meredith, Good Morning America was revamping its show with new talent and a new mandate, both in front of, and behind the camera. The show is, in my highly biased view, more dynamic, fun, and exciting than it has been in years. It moves faster, the story selection is stronger, and it just seems more lively than ever before.
So maybe it was a perfect storm of behind the scenes squalls at the Today Show coming just as GMA was fixing its guns on the aging Today Show frigate.
Scapegoating rich, successful Matt may be easy but that doesn’t mean it’s fair or accurate. If I were having that conversation with George Stephanopoulos again today about Matt I wouldn’t say anything differently and I’ll bet he wouldn’t either… except maybe we both would be less focused on Matt and more on how great it is that GMA is now number one.
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