The “Today Show” Hunger Games

Holding a job down in the corporate news media is more of a lottery than a talent

By Chez Pazienza: I used to have a motto that I lived by when it came to the notion of job security in the TV news business — it’s one I’d pass along to the various rising stars coming up through the ranks whenever the winds of change were gathering in the corner offices of the newsroom: Management is always behind you 100% — right up until the second they put their hand against your back and push you out the door. It pretty much goes without saying that no matter the field you work in, you can’t put absolute faith in corporate’s absolute faith in you, but in mainstream television news that’s a fact you have to always keep in the front of your mind or risk being blindsided at the worst possible moment.

You can be on top of the world one day and pounding the pavement looking for a new job the next — and most managers are so adept at bloodletting that they can make sure you’ll never see or hear the bullet that ultimately kills you. While this is a fact of life in the modern media, with decisions behind the scenes mimicking the rapid fire cycle of information going out to the audience, it can make for a truly volatile work environment.

With that in mind, it should surprise no one that poor Savannah Guthrie took over the Today show a couple of weeks ago with a very big target already tattooed on her back. Thus is the presumption of a career lived on borrowed time that NBC has sown following a few very high-profile, publicly embarrassing dismissals over the past year-and-a-half. It started with Conan O’Brien, who was handed The Tonight Show only to have it taken back after a mere seven months to make way for the return of the insufferable Jay Leno; following that was the entirely timely firing of NBC Universal CEO and Head Hack-in-Charge Jeff Zucker; then came Ann Curry’s ouster from the Today show after fourteen years in the opening credits but just one year as a main anchor.

While Zucker’s boot-to-the-ass was much deserved, it’s a safe bet that neither Conan nor Curry believed that they were on Double Secret Probation from the moment they accepted their respective promotions. The banishing of all three proves that NBC has no issue looking like an organization that’s anything but organized, but two of the sacks make it glaringly apparent that when it comes to talent specifically, NBC’s management is made up of a bunch of knee-jerks who live in constant fear of any sort of ratings slide and react without focus or a long-term plan, always eager to find the nearest scapegoat to sacrifice. It’s the furthest thing from the kind of smart, slow-burn ethos I was taught to abide by during my time in the NBC family almost fifteen years ago.

All of this brings us back to Savannah Guthrie, who took over the co-anchor reins at Today, with much fanfare, all of a month ago and was promptly beat on her first day out by the show’s arch-nemesis, Good Morning America. The recent, gradual ratings gain by GMA was the supposed reason that Ann Curry had to go, making way for Guthrie’s ascendance, and it doesn’t seem to be letting up now that a talent change has been made at the top.

Enter Hoda Kotb and a new controversy that threatens to once again return NBC and its desperate inability to make a decision and stick with it back to their rightful place in the public eye. The New York Daily News claims, and is maintaining, that Kotb is being parachuted into London as an emergency measure to help save Today’s flagging Olympics coverage. (Last Thursday, even with NBC’s entire morning team reporting from London, GMA still managed to handily whip Today.) The rumor is that the NBC management types are hoping that Kotb’s coffee-klatchy — wine-klatchy? — demeanor will give a little juice to what’s truly been a lackluster series of shows out of England. All this would seem to suggest that Savannah Guthrie might want to start preparing her tearful goodbye speech now.

NBC of course is denying that it’s at all disappointed with the coverage Today has been offering and it insists that Kotb’s trip to London is routine and has been in the planning stages for weeks. There may actually be some validity to that second claim, given that Kotb mentioned the possibility of going to London for the network on-air three weeks ago. But that’s not really the point. The point is that NBC has created, all on its own, a climate where it’s easy to imagine that there’s a Boschian room full of suits somewhere in the bowels of 30 Rock tearing their eyes out over what they’re seeing on-air and shouting out increasingly desperate quick-fixes designed to stop the hemorrhaging of numbers. NBC’s got no one to blame but itself for its current reputation for reflexive, near sociopathic decision-making in the face of perceived ratings disaster — so it makes perfect sense that rumors of the upcoming death of Savannah Guthrie, however greatly exaggerated, could have at least some merit. This is what you get when you play musical chairs with your people and screw with their lives like it’s no big deal, then badmouth them publicly once they’re out of earshot.

All television organizations these days, particularly TV news departments, are well-versed in the not-so-subtle art of Panic Programming. It’s the reason shows move from time slot to time slot and come and go after only a couple of episodes; it’s why freshly minted golden boys and girls become back-alley dumpster dwellers in a matter of a few weeks; it’s why magic bullets are always sought to save the day instead of steady hands to guide things forward. But nobody has the kind of masterful touch that NBC does when it comes to upending the entire product and dumping powerful people in a tornado of bad PR — and that’s because it’s willing to take the hit publicly because it knows both that the audience will eventually get over it and that there will always be an abundance of good people waiting in the wings for their chance to try to be the standout the network can’t get rid of. I can’t help but wonder if Savannah Guthrie thinks she’s one of those people — or if she’s a nervous wreck, contemplating whether her days are already numbered.

Some people obviously think they are. And NBC’s recent history of pumping bright rays of sunshine up its stars’ asses only to turn around and show them the door in short order is what’s responsible for that belief.

NBC says it’s fully behind Savannah Guthrie. Uh-huh. I’ve heard that before.

In the words of the good Doctor: Don’t blink, Savannah.

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