The most striking thing about Thursday's episode of the "Today" show may have been what you didn't see: No empty chair where Natalie Morales usually sits (she was there, calmly reading the news, as usual), and no other sign of the backstage turmoil that has engulfed the venerable morning news show this week, which had threatened the jobs of correspondents Morales and Willie Geist and has already claimed the job of the new producer brought in just a few weeks ago to fix the troubled show.
Despite the placid surface, it's clear that there is still trouble brewing at "Today," a creative and corporate struggle that is not likely to end soon. And the stakes are high, involving big money, big names, and big egos.
After all, "Today" is easily the most lucrative program overseen by NBC News –- maybe even the most profitable show on the network, period. But "Today"'s revenues depend on ratings, and those ratings depend, at least in part, on "Today""s image as a fun place to hang out in the morning, where convivial news readers mingle easily with fans and each other on the sun-warmed cobblestones of Rockefeller Plaza. This week's news, driven largely by anonymous mud-slinging, threatened to tarnish that image, scuttle those ratings, and jeopardize those ad dollars.
The news was so confusing that Us Weekly even reported on Wednesday that Morales and Geist had been fired and were already lining up other opportunities (Morales at ABC and Geist at CBS), with the magazine citing an unnamed source at NBC for the supposed scoop. Later that day, the magazine backtracked a little, insisting that Morales and Geist's futures with NBC were still uncertain, even though NBC News president Deborah Turness had issued a statement saying that the network was keeping "Today"'s on-air team intact. "This is the team we are committed to," her statement read, referring to all nine of "Today"'s correspondents.
Geist, too, reassured his followers on Twitter that he and Morales weren't going anywhere. CBS denied that it was hiring Geist, while ABC declined comment on its supposed negotiations with Morales.
The upheaval, which became public Monday with the firing of new producer Jamie Horowitz, really began 10 weeks ago when Horowitz came on board. Or maybe it began two years ago, when "Today" started losing the morning ratings battle to ABC's "Good Morning America" after 16 years of daybreak dominance, and when longtime "Today" news reader Ann Curry lost her job, in what became a public relations debacle for the show and for anchor Matt Lauer in particular.
Ever since, "Today" has been trying to catch up to "GMA" and regain the upper hand To that end, NBC News hired Horowitz, who had a strong track record as a producer at ESPN. At the time of his hire, Turness said of Horowitz, "Jamie has the skills, the talent and the experience to lead the 'Today' brand into the future. He is first and foremost a great producer ... [and] he comes at things from unexpected angles and has a popular touch combined with real intellectual creativity."
In fact, NBC jumped through hoops to hire Horowitz away from the Disney-owned sports channel. The network allowed ABC to hire away MSNBC producer Bill Wolff to oversee the relaunched "The View" in return for Disney getting ABC corporate sibling ESPN to let Horowitz out of his contract three months early.
But the hard-charging style Horowitz was known for at ESPN apparently came off as too abrasive at "Today," where many staffers in front of and behind the camera have enjoyed several years of job security. (So reported Variety and several other outlets.) According to The Wrap, Horowitz cited reality competition show "Survivor" as a management inspiration, pitted "Today" employees against each other, and mused about which staffers would be "voted off the island." Us reported that his picks for elimination included Morales and Geist. Tamron Hall, too, was in danger of being sent back down to the minors at MSNBC, the magazine's source claimed.
It didn't seem to matter that Morales is popular with viewers, or that Geist had been spoken of as a possible heir to Lauer's anchor chair, whenever that 56-year-old "Today" mainstay decides to vacate it. Horowitz had been given a mandate to shake things up, and he reportedly considered replacing Morales and Geist and perhaps even co-anchor Savannah Guthrie, with Hoda Kotb possibly replacing Gurthrie (earning a promotion from her post at the late-morning cocktail hour edition of "Today" alongside Kathie Lee Gifford) and Josh Elliott (a "GMA" alumnus, and reportedly a Horowitz pal) perhaps taking Morales' place as news reader and ultimately Lauer's as lead anchor.
Perhaps mindful of the hit his reputation took after the Curry fiasco, when he was widely seen as the bad guy who pushed her out, Lauer stood by his fellow "Today" stars this time. The New York Post reports that Lauer told Turness on Monday that he wanted Morales and Geist to stay. But that alliance meant it was Horowitz, whom the network had gone to great lengths to hire, who would now be voted off the island. Not that he'll walk away empty-handed; he had a three-year, $3.3 million contract, which NBC now has to buy out.
Horowitz's firing, along with Turness' publicly stated vote of confidence in her entire roster of "Today" on-air talent, should have put the whole matter to rest. But of course, it doesn't. "Today" still needs a producer. Morales and Geist may still be looking over their shoulders, wondering how deep and how durable the support of Lauer and the network will be; should they jump before they're pushed? Kotb and Elliott must also be wondering how committed NBC is to their own career advancement. Lauer must be wondering whether it's better to look like the guy who got an expensive new producer fired than to look like the guy who got a longtime on-air colleague fired. And Turness must be wondering if having "Today"'s dirty laundry aired in public for the second time in two years is going to endanger her job. (One senior executive at NBC called the decision to fire Horowitz "massively embarrassing," the New York Times reports. On the other hand, the Times continues, some at NBC are praising Turness for acting swiftly.)
Finally, there's still the problem Horowitz was hired to solve: how the morning team that NBC used to bill as "America's First Family" can beat "Good Morning America." Firing popular stars is probably not the way to do it, but neither is making yourself look like America's First Dysfunctional Family.
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