Television hosts and anchors have an unusual relationship with their viewers. It is a relationship that is constantly analyzed, measured and dissected by researchers, focus groups and telephone surveys to find our if there is a “connection.”
Television news is a lucrative and competitive business and finding that news personality who connects can be worth millions. It is why TV anchors and hosts can make so much money, especially at the network level.
Matt Lauer is reportedly the highest-paid person in network news. The Today Show host is paid $25 million a year and has been worth it, as the show he hosts has brought in more money in advertising than any other news show on TV—until recently. For the past two years, Good Morning America has passed the Today Show in the ratings. Much of the reason for this slip is Lauer’s tarnished connection with the viewers due to one uncomfortable moment.
It was June 28th. Ann Curry had been Matt Lauer’s co-host for only a year, and the ratings were on shaky ground. On her last day, Curry was not given the big sendoff that her predecessor Meredith Vieira got—just a few minutes at the end of the show. It was more a good riddance than a good-bye, but Curry made the most of it. Fighting back tears she spoke to her viewers and then to the Asian community. “For all of you who saw me as a groundbreaker, I’m sorry I couldn’t carry the ball over the finish line, but, man, I did try.” It was real. It was powerful. And Matt Lauer didn’t know what to do. He fumbled through some accolades as Ann Curry refused to look at him. There was no hug. It left Lauer looking like a lout.
In the days that followed, story after story came out about Lauer and Curry not getting along. In the months that followed, Lauer became a tabloid villain. This week, the press reports hit a tipping point when the New York Times ran a story on Lauer’s demise on the front page, right under the announcement of the new Pope.
The Times obtained details of a recent focus group leaked by someone at NBC. Members of the group complained over and over again about the lack of a connection between the anchors and the audience. Although Lauer’s name isn’t mentioned, an NBC senior staff member said everyone knew who they were talking about. “What they meant was Matt, but no one would say it.” The article then went on to name possible replacements—David Gregory from Meet the Press and Willie Geist, who was recently added as host of the Today’s third hour.
Viewers are complaining about Lauer, NBC insiders are turning on him, and replacements are being groomed all because of one bad moment preserved forever on the Internet. Lauer is considered one of the best interviewers in the business. He has helped keep Today on top for more than a decade. But all of his successes and experience are no match for Google, YouTube and gossip blogs that are already assuming his departure. The New York Post is even reporting that Lauer may replace Alex Trebek as the new host of Jeopardy.
Ironically, the one person who could make this all go away and save Lauer from getting the boot is Ann Curry. If she were to come out publicly and show support for Lauer and say that she was not giving the cold shoulder to Lauer during her tearful good-bye, maybe viewers will forgive and forget. But somehow I think that’s not going to happen.