Denial behind the scenes at the "Today" show

An excerpt from Brian Stelter's book on morning shows exposes an intricate and complex political web


Prachi Gupta
April 18, 2013 9:24PM (UTC)

Today, the New York Times Magazine published an excerpt from New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter's upcoming book, "Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV" -- a dishy, definitive account of the scandal that's shrouded NBC's "Today" show in controversy for the past year. What's especially remarkable about Stelter's account of the ousting of Ann Curry, in addition to the complex political web it examines, is how executives continued to politick, even as the secrets became exposed:

Jim Bell, former executive producer, denies endorsing these humiliating segments:

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At one point, the executive producer, Jim Bell, commissioned a blooper reel of Curry’s worst on-air mistakes. Another time, according to a producer, Bell called staff members into his office to show a gaffe she made during a cross-talk with a local station. (Bell denies both incidents.)

Bell also denies creating a plan called "Operation Bambi" to fire Curry:

One morning-TV veteran suggested to him that firing Curry, who had been co-hosting for only about six months at that point, would be tantamount to “killing Bambi.” Undeterred, Bell hatched a careful three-part plan: 1.) persuade Lauer to extend his expiring contract; 2.) oust Curry; 3.) replace her with Savannah Guthrie. According to this source, Bell called his plan Operation Bambi.

Bell, a 6-foot-4 former Harvard lineman, was well liked by his staff. He was considered a straight shooter who would do anything for the sake of the show. (Bell denies using the term “Operation Bambi.”)

As the end of her tenure at the network neared, CEO Jeff Zucker met with Ann Curry -- maybe:

Zucker, who was now on his way to being chief executive, told her that she could go, but that he genuinely wanted her to stay. Curry ultimately decided to wait for her next opportunity at the co-host chair. To protect herself, she had her agent add an “out” clause in her next contract, which allowed her to go to work for another network immediately if she was passed over again. (A source close to Curry denied that this meeting took place.)

When Curry fell into the role of "Today" show host, Lauer took a disliking to her, though he denies this particular incident happened:

Curry turned out to be out of her depth almost immediately. During her first morning as co-host, on June 9, 2011, she made a joke about not wearing deodorant that made Lauer look genuinely embarrassed. The strikes against her added up fast: her critics said she sounded disingenuous in interviews, had an annoying habit of whisper-talking to grieving guests and struggled to read from the teleprompter. One day early in her tenure, according to a longtime staff member, Lauer told a production assistant, “I can’t believe I am sitting next to this woman.” (Lauer, through a spokeswoman, denied saying this.)

Bell denies acknowledging that it was "a mistake" to bring Curry on:

Barely a month after she started, Bell confessed to a former colleague, “It was probably a mistake, but we just didn’t want to wake up and see Ann on another network.” (Bell later denied saying this.)

After Curry left the show, NBC put a woman named Pat Fili-Krushel in charge of restructuring the network and making the "Today" show work again. She put Bell in charge of the Olympics - -an account Bell disagrees with:

Fili-Krushel immediately homed in on what she believed were the problems. “It just hasn’t evolved,” she told associates about the show. She wanted to make the show move faster and make its set feel warmer and friendlier. She also wanted to replace its producer. About a month after the Olympics ended, Fili-Krushel met with Bell and told him that he had a choice. He could produce “Today” or he could produce future Olympics broadcasts, but he couldn’t do both. And if he wanted to keep “Today,” he needed to “do some soul searching,” Fili-Krushel told him, “to decide if you have the energy to evolve this show.” Bell held on for weeks, even while Fili-Krushel and Capus started to consider candidates for his job. Eventually he chose the Olympics. (Bell disputes this account. He says he chose to focus on the Olympics independently.)

Read the full excerpt here.

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Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at pgupta@salon.com.

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Ann Curry Matt Lauer Morning Shows Nbc Television Today Show

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