NEW YORK -- For a morning show used to celebrating family and a connection with its audience, the “Today” show’s farewell to co-host Ann Curry on Thursday was brief, tearful and sad.
It was tinged with the sense of failure, something NBC’s dominant morning show hasn’t experienced in a long time.
Curry, who was co-host with Matt Lauer for a year after several years as the news anchor, fought back tears on the air, saying “this is not as I expected to ever leave this couch.”
Her departure ended a week’s worth of awkward television. She came to work after word got out that NBC was looking to oust her, with neither she nor the network commenting on the stories until Thursday. “I’m sorry I couldn’t carry the ball over the finish line but, man, I did try,” she said.
While Curry was placed in a role to which she was unsuited, blaming her for the “Today” show’s troubles would be simplistic. Expecting her successor—most likely NBC’s Savannah Guthrie—to author an immediate turnaround would be unrealistic.
“There’s nothing wrong with Ann Curry,” said Shelley Ross, former producer for ABC’s “Good Morning America” and CBS’ “The Early Show.” “It is not an Ann Curry failure.”
Her ouster, however, was NBC’s first visible response to the end of its historic winning streak this spring. Starting in December 1995, NBC had won every week in the morning show ratings -- 852 consecutive weeks—until being topped by “Good Morning America.” The two shows have since traded victories, with ABC winning a total of four weeks.
NBC’s long decline in prime-time has likely affected the “Today” show, giving it less visibility among viewers. The network’s executives say that “Good Morning America” does particularly well when it features members of the “Dancing With the Stars” cast from ABC’s prime-time lineup.
But it’s clear that ABC’s morning show has been on the upswing and has a team of obvious chemistry, while “Today” has been on its heels. Ross said the show needs to be “fresher and scrappier.”
“The ‘Today’ show is now stagnating from what I would call the arrogance of being No. 1,” she said. “That will happen to anybody. You stagnate because you’re No. 1 and think you don’t need to change.”
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the “Today” show to NBC, particularly with so many other things at the network going wrong. Last year “Today” earned an estimated $484 million in revenue, more than “GMA” ($298 million) and CBS’ morning show ($156 million) combined, according to Kantar Media. Losing the top spot in the ratings means a lot more than bragging rights.
“It’s a tough business and there’s a huge amount of money involved here,” said Bill Wheatley, a former NBC News executive who now teaches at Columbia University.
Television is no different than sports or the business world in the likelihood that someone will take a fall when things go wrong. Curry’s co-host, Matt Lauer, is generally considered the top anchor in morning television now, and maybe of all time, and he recently signed a new contract. He’s not going anywhere. The “Today” executive producer, Jim Bell, is regarded highly at NBC and was given the additional assignment of producing the network’s Olympic coverage from London.
Curry is respected as a reporter at NBC News, and is staying at the network to continue in a reporting role. Yet when Katie Couric left “Today” to go to CBS, Curry was passed over for the top job for Meredith Vieira.
Vieira had unassailable credentials as a former “60 Minutes” reporter at CBS News and the dominant personality on the talk show “The View.” There was no one in the wings with such strength when Vieira left, and there was a general sense at NBC that Curry deserved the chance to be co-host and viewers would resent it if she didn’t get one.
Yet she never seemed to achieve a solid comfort level. One former morning show producer said the chemistry involved in such programs is like seeing people who dance well together—they anticipate moves, know preferences and instinctively follow each other’s cues. That was a strength for “Today” for many years, and it didn’t seem to work with Curry in her new role.
She was luckless, too, as when she was hit in the head by a camera on Tuesday’s show.
She’s a smart, earnest woman who appears offscreen exactly as she is on the air. She’ll give an intense stare and expression of concern, maybe touch an arm for emphasis. She cares deeply. “You have the biggest heart in the business,” Lauer said on Thursday. “You put it on display every single day in this studio.”
Somehow, though, it came off on television as more odd than heartwarming.
When word spread that NBC was negotiating Curry’s departure, the network privately wanted to emphasize that Lauer was in no way behind it. There’s no evidence that he was. Yet he’s an extremely powerful man at NBC News, and if he fought hard to keep Curry, that’s not evident either.
With her new reporting role, Curry won’t be disappearing from the air. She’ll even be back on “Today” with reports occasionally, and Lauer said she will accompany the “Today” team to London for its Olympics coverage, considered an important showcase for “Today” to renew its lapsed relationship with some longtime viewers.