Jesus, how desperate is NBC to save the Today show? Desperate enough to let Matt Lauer publicly scold them for screwing up the firing of Ann Curry.
It was just four months ago that then-Today executive producer Jim Bell essentially pleaded with the public not to blame Lauer for the ugly debacle that was Ann Curry's dismissal. At the time, the hope was that by taking the bullet for both the host and the network Bell would stave off the relentless negative publicity that was being heaped on Lauer and the show, publicity which had gotten so awful that Lauer, the once-beloved Today show host, was being confronted on the street and yelled at by average people for being a smug, imperious prick. Today's ratings plummeted and Lauer was suddenly a cultural pariah.
Well, now Lauer is breaking his silence on the whole mess in extensive detail for the first time, talking to The Daily Beast's Howie Kurtz about the Curry firing and its aftermath, which is still being felt at Today. In the interview, Lauer says that he in fact warned NBC about the dangers of amputating Curry from the Today show body with a hacksaw and no anesthesia, rather than being careful, gentle and surgical about the whole thing. “I don’t think the show and the network handled the transition well," Lauer explains. "You don’t have to be Einstein to know that. It clearly did not help us. We were seen as a family, and we didn’t handle a family matter well.”
That's putting it mildly. NBC not only promoted Curry to her dream job after 14 years as a dedicated member of the show, then fired her just a year after that -- it followed that up by doing to Curry what it did to Conan O'Brien after firing him under pretty much the same circumstances two years earlier, namely it trashed her publicly. Former NBC asshole-in-charge Steve Capus issued a harsh statement not long after Curry's ouster saying that she'd had her chance and basically couldn't cut it, adding one more example of what had become a recent NBC management trend of near-sociopathic incompetence. Capus didn't take the blame for the monumental PR clusterfuck because as far as he and the enlightened beings in the rarefied air of the 30 Rock adminisphere were concerned, there was no PR clusterfuck to take the blame for.
That was then, though. The Today show is now an also-ran in a morning race it once dominated, and NBC just wrapped up the February book in an unprecedented 5th place, behind all three of the other major broadcasting outlets and Spanish-language network Univision. (A fun irony of that by the way: NBC Universal owns Univision competitor Telemundo, so getting doubly screwed by the network, not only watching Univision slaughter Telemundo but the flagship of its parent, must've truly hurt.) So now NBC, in a move no doubt borne of sheer, tragic desperation, is trotting out Lauer and letting him point fingers at network in the hope of shielding him from any more fire from the public. Because in the end, the ratings for the Today show are more dependent on how people feel about the on-air talent than how they feel about the network in general. Don Nash and Alexandra Wallace, who now executive produce Today, could Zamboni live kittens into the ice rink in the middle of Rockefeller Center -- as long as people loved Lauer, they'd stil watch Today.
It's really staggering when you consider the level of ineptitude NBC has displayed both in firing Curry then in dealing with the publicity disaster it caused. Maybe the Lauer interview will help him finally shake the specter of being the Emperor Palpatine who secretly pulled the strings that got Ann Curry fired, although probably not since in the age of internet gossip it's a hell of a lot easier -- and much more fun -- to blame the famous guy on TV than it is to rail about a faceless corporate leviathan like NBC.
But the network's willingness to let one of its star anchors basically trash it to save his own ass shows just how bad things have gotten over there.