March 5, 2021

Media Decoder Blog: ‘Today’ Producer Says Ouster of Ann Curry Was His Choice

Jim Bell, the executive producer of the Peter Kramer/NBC Jim Bell, the executive producer of the “Today” show.

8:24 p.m. | Updated

For the first time since removing Ann Curry from “Today” on NBC, the show’s executive producer on Wednesday defended that decision and sought to define the cause of its recent ratings setbacks, including the end of its 16-year weekly winning streak.

The producer, Jim Bell, said it “was absolutely my call” to replace Ms. Curry as co-anchor of the “Today” show in June after only a year on the job. While “Today” lost its longstanding lead over ABC’s “Good Morning America” in April, before Ms. Curry was ousted, its ratings have continued to erode since her departure.

“GMA” has won the last six weeks by margins ranging from 255,000 viewers to 883,000. It has also beaten “Today” by increasingly sizable margins in the category most important to advertisers, viewers ages 25 to 54. Last week, “GMA” won that group by 234,000 viewers, its biggest edge since it took over first place.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Bell offered numerous reasons that “GMA” had taken over as the regular leader in the morning news competition, including the sheer difficulty of maintaining dominance for so long. But he pointed in particular to what he called the difference in the show’s approaches, calling “Today” a “more serious show” and accusing “GMA” of “doing something else.”

Asked if he was suggesting “GMA” was now a tabloid-style program, Mr. Bell said, “That’s what I’m saying.”

ABC News on Wednesday responded by first pointing to the scoreboard. “I think the audience has spoken loud and clear about its preference in the morning,” said Julie Townsend, spokeswoman for ABC News.

ABC executives were also eager to note that such a description could be applied to a recent “Today” interview with Kris Jenner, mother of television’s most popular tabloid family, the Kardashians, about her breast implants. (That interview drew attention because it came when the other morning news programs were observing a moment of silence for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.)

Mr. Bell declined to call the original choice of Ms. Curry to succeed Meredith Vieira a mistake — “Ann had earned it,” he said — but he noted that Ms. Curry is now “in the role she is naturally suited for.” (Ms. Curry is now a special correspondent for the show, reporting, so far, mostly on international news; on Wednesday, she interviewed Libya’s interim president, Mohammed Magarief.)

Mr. Bell defended the appointment of Savannah Guthrie as the co-anchor beside Matt Lauer, calling her an important part of a “long view” plan for “Today” to regain the top ratings position. He specifically denied recent reports that the decision to remove Ms. Curry was a response to demands by Mr. Lauer, who recently renegotiated his contract.

“It was definitely not Matt’s call,” Mr. Bell said. “He is the host and does not have management responsibility. It was not his call. That was my call.”

Mr. Bell also expressed incredulity at recent reports that Mr. Lauer had been more vocal in his demands about the show, and had begun berating staff members. “These stories portraying Matt in a negative light are just preposterous,” Mr. Bell said. “Matt is the heart and soul of the broadcast. He has a heart of gold. This stuff about him has been very irresponsible and in a lot of cases flat-out wrong.”

Nor is “Today” facing any budget cuts to compensate for paying Mr. Lauer a reported $25 million a year, Mr. Bell said. “There is no plan for any cutbacks of layoffs for any of the staff,” he said. As for any reduction to Mr. Lauer’s salary, which was reported in The Daily News this week, “that could not be more wrong,” Mr. Bell said.

Asked what viewers could expect in the way of changes to affect this long-view approach, Mr. Bell said, “You just have to watch.”

Bill Carter writes about the television industry. Follow @wjcarter on Twitter.

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NBC Expected to Pick Curry as ‘Today’ Co-Host

The network is expected to hold a news conference Monday morning to announce that Ann Curry will succeed Meredith Vieira as the co-host of “Today,” the sprawling morning show that Ms. Vieira and Matt Lauer have anchored for five years. Ms. Curry is likely to take Ms. Vieira’s seat in June, according to people with direct knowledge of the appointment who also described plans for the news conference.

NBC will reveal that Natalie Morales, a 9 a.m. anchor of “Today,” will replace Ms. Curry as the news anchor, and Savannah Guthrie, a White House correspondent and MSNBC anchor, will become the 9 a.m. anchor.

Ms. Vieira’s decision to leave was entirely her own, by all accounts.

Ms. Curry, who has been the news anchor on “Today” for 14 years, is well known and well liked by viewers. NBC executives and outsiders with experience in morning television see the shift as both logical for the show and to be expected by its big audience. But they agree that any change in the familiar cast of “Today” carries risk.

The changes at “Today” are occurring as there is unusual upheaval across the news landscape. Last week, Katie Couric, who left “Today” five years ago to become the evening news anchor at CBS, announced her intention to leave that program as her contract with the network ends next month. Early this week, CBS is poised to announce that Scott Pelley, a correspondent on “60 Minutes,” will succeed her. Another anchor, Erin Burnett of CNBC, announced plans last week to join CNN.

The changes at “Today” carry so much significance because the show is far and away the top profit maker in a network news business that is financially pressed on multiple fronts. “Something around $200 million a year in profit is a good estimate,” said one veteran executive associated with the show. The executive, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the changes at “Today” were not yet official.

No other news show approaches that profit figure. NBC has essentially turned “Today” into its morning fortress, expanding it to four hours, twice as long as its competitors.

Those competitors at ABC and CBS have made personnel changes in recent years, seeking a slice of “Today’s” bountiful profits should it lose ground. And they are watching this spring’s transition carefully. But to date “Today” has been the most impregnable show in television history, with a ratings winning streak that stretches 800 consecutive weeks.

Even a minor dip in the dominance of “Today” grabs outsize attention, as did last week’s news that ABC’s “Good Morning America” had cut “Today’s” usual lead of some 800,000 viewers to fewer than 600,000 for one week.

“Today” has maintained its pre-eminence through a skillful series of transitions from its established stars to new hosts. Now that is in new hands: Vieira-to-Curry is the first big talent transition for Comcast to manage since it took over NBC in January.

When Ms. Couric left five years ago, NBC went outside the “Today” cast and the news division’s staff to hire Ms. Vieira, a former CBS News correspondent who had become the host of ABC’s daytime talk hit, “The View.”

The move proved successful, though it struck some of the show’s regular viewers as an obvious slight to Ms. Curry, who had put in more than a decade and seemed to be the next co-host in waiting. Ms. Curry and her agent expressed unhappiness at the time, the veteran NBC executive said, and she had to be convinced that she was still held in high regard at the network.

She agreed to stay and set about to solidify her news profile on the show by making numerous trips to sites of breaking news, often to scenes of natural disasters like the earthquake in Haiti last year, or other locations struck by tragedy, like Darfur, Pakistan, Syria and Kosovo.

“My dream has been to be a journalist of our time,” she told graduates at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., last year. “My aim is to reveal the truth about war, genocide, crimes against humanity and other human suffering.”

Tom Touchet, who was the executive producer of “Today” from 2002 to 2005, said of Ms. Curry, “She is as good and caring off-air as she appears to be on-air. That’s a rare, special quality.”

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