"Today" co-anchor Matt Lauer has been on damage control mode since July 2012, when NBC unceremoniously fired its newest (and one of its most beloved) co-hosts, Ann Curry. Since their awkward departing, in which Curry openly stiffed Lauer's embrace on national TV, Lauer has been blamed in the media as the reason for Curry's departure and the subsequent drop in ratings. Now, less than a year later, Lauer's found himself in the same position Curry was in only months ago: fending off rumors that he's to be replaced on NBC's staple show.
This week's New York magazine profiles Lauer and the events that led to Curry's departure, revealing some surprising insights on what was going on behind the scenes at NBC. Some of the highlights, below:
Curry was “next in line” but was never meant to be the host -- she only ended up on-air because a deal with Katie Couric fell through:
"Lauer attempted to bring Couric back to NBC, proposing an arrangement where she would co-host Today for a couple of years and do a daytime talk show with Lauer as well. But the network balked over money. So they decided not to make the deal, and after Couric, NBC management simply didn’t have another plan—Ann Curry was the choice by process of elimination. She was installed as co-host of Today in June 2011."
The Emmy-winning reporter was never a natural “Today” anchor -- and Lauer was not a fan:
"Within six months, executive producer Jim Bell had come to the conclusion that Curry wasn’t working out. She frequently stumbled over the words on the teleprompter and her intensity sometimes made her difficult to watch during interviews with tragedy victims. But, more important, Lauer looked awkward and unhappy next to her—a situation that Lauer himself had also diagnosed."
But an independent research company found that Lauer -- not Curry -- was the problem:
When Lauer was onscreen with Curry, it was Lauer who became less appealing to viewers, not Curry. “He was looking aloof, a little bit holier-than-thou, and pompous,” says a former NBC executive who viewed the reports. “He was becoming Bryant Gumbel.” (Gumbel, Lauer’s close friend and frequent golf partner, left Today with a similar reputation.)
Lauer renegotiated his contract, making it clear that he didn't want to work with Curry. In fact, ABC thought that Lauer was headed to “Good Morning America”:
"For a few days in late March, [ABC executives] Iger, Zucker, and Sherwood all believed they had been told by both Lauer and his agent, Ken Linder, that Lauer was coming to ABC. In their minds, the deal was done, with only the legalities to be worked out. But the following week, Lauer surprised them all by calling and saying thanks but no thanks."
Someone then leaked Curry's impending exit to Brian Stelter, the New York Times reporter who has completed a book about morning television. Stelter became a major player in the drama inside NBC:
"Fingers began pointing over the leak. Was it [former "Today" show executive producer] Jim Bell trying to force Curry’s hand? Was it a negotiating tactic by Curry’s lawyer? (Stelter, for his part, says it was not Camp Curry.) Lauer assured his booker, 'My hands are clean.' Bell considered pulling Curry off the air, waiting till the evening to decide whether she could appear on television the next day. The following morning, Curry was discovered crying in her dressing room before airtime.' "
Curry, who cried all the way to the airport on the day of her departure, has been open about her grudge against Lauer:
"When Curry flew to London, the show attempted to stage an on-air reunion between Lauer and Curry. But Curry, who sat in her car a few yards from the set until her shot was ready, refused to speak to Lauer as he tried making small talk. On the air, Curry pretended Lauer didn’t exist after he turned to her to introduce a segment she had produced. Lauer looked stiff and isolated."
It's likely that things will only get more awkward for him.