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Top of the Morning
Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV
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When America wakes up with personable and charming hosts like Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos, it’s hard to imagine their show bookers having to guard a guest’s hotel room all night to prevent rival shows from poaching. But that is just a glimpse of the intense reality revealed in this gripping look into the most competitive time slot in television.
Featuring exclusive content about all the major players of the 2000s, Top of the Morning illuminates what it takes to win the AM — when every single viewer counts, tons of jobs are on the line, and hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake. Stelter is behind the scenes as Ann Curry replaces Meredith Vieira on the Today show, only to be fired a year later in a fiasco that made national headlines. He’s backstage as Good Morning America launches an attack to dethrone Today and end the longest consecutive winning streak in morning television history. And he’s there as Roberts is diagnosed with a crippling disease — on what should be the happiest day of her career.
So grab a cup of coffee, sit back, and discover the dark side of the sun.
Praise for Top of the Morning
“Mr. Stelter pulls back the curtains and exposes a savage corporate world that might have been inhabited by the Sopranos.” — Washington Times
“A troubling look inside an enterprise as vicious and internecine as a soap opera.” — Kirkus Reviews
To my mom and dad, who always rustled me out of bed in time for the morning shows. Mom always watched Good Morning America;
I always watched Today.
To Jamie, my love, who makes every morning a good one.
Ask the Author
I’d like to answer your questions about morning television as you read. Tweet a question to @brianstelter on Twitter or look me up on Facebook, and I’ll reply right away.
To read a Q&A of other readers’ questions, visit http://brianstelter.com/morning/
Oh, what a thrill it is to solve, or even to think you’ve solved, a large, long-standing, and most of all very public problem! So it was with a sense of welling satisfaction, and a growing warmth that spread through his broad bosom like the aftereffect of a double jigger of single malt scotch, taken at the end of one of those five-hundred-dollar TV executive lunches that we’re told don’t happen anymore, but that most certainly do, at places like La Grenouille and the Four Seasons, every damn day, that a certain producer at NBC came to the realization, in January 2012, that he did after all know how to steer that tsunami-tossed cruise ship of a television enterprise known as the Today show into smoother seas.
Yes. He. Jim Bell. Had. The. Answer.
To be clear, this was not exactly a eureka moment for Bell. The forty-four-year-old Harvard-educated son of an attorney at General Electric had at that point been in charge of the most valuable franchise in morning television for more than six years. He’d identified what he saw as The Problem several months ago, even whispered about it to his friends, risking a leak that could lead to truly disastrous headlines—but it was only now that a plan crystallized, more or less, in his mind, and he realized that it was time to turn a nagging awareness into an act. Time to do something.
In the TV world, as you may know, “to do something” often means “to fire someone.” A member of the Today show “family” was going down, Jack.
And so it was, unbeknownst even to the members of the “family,” that a plot was hatched, a plot in some ways similar to the plots one reads about in those raised-letter paperbacks one buys at the airport, or sees in old Steve McQueen movies. It would feature clandestine meetings, a Greek chorus of naysayers proclaiming it far too risky, an unstoppable momentum, a cold-hearted exterminator, devilishly handsome men, alluring and dangerous women, and even, yes, a name. Let’s call it—as Jim Bell did—Operation Bambi.
If that leads you to think there was something lighthearted or self-effacing about Bell’s scheme, it shouldn’t. The title was not satirical. Operation Bambi may have been far less important in the general sweep of history, but it was no less earnest an endeavor than the Nazis’ Operation Sea Lion or America’s Operation Desert Storm.
Still, what are we to think when what is essentially a corporate personnel decision is dressed up with a kind of dashing, pseudo-military moniker?
One is that while morning TV is created mostly for women, it is, even at this late date, quite obviously managed mostly by men—men who like to think in terms of war, sabotage, and, well, embarrassing James Bond–y names for stuff they do in the office.
The other thing we can take from Operation Bambi is a lesson about sleep deprivation. This is something to keep in mind as you read this book, or think about this genre in general. The subtle but sometimes strikingly weird effects of sleep deprivation can be seen everywhere in the world of morning TV, and they make people do…interesting things. Meredith Vieira recognized it when she left Today in 2011: “When you’re tired all the time, you just don’t feel well. It’s easy to gain weight; it’s easy to get depressed. And there’s anxiety.” And no amount of money can cure exhaustion. Though many have tried. Network morning TV hosts are, almost by definition, millionaires: several make north of five million dollars a year and one, Matt Lauer, the longest-serving and most successful of them all, makes more than twenty million. They work for producers who make far less, though those producers don’t have to do what hosts do: appear alive and alert and attractive on the air every single morning, no matter how sleepy or stressed or ugly they really feel. Not to put too fine a point on it, when you’re dealing with a lot of rich folks whose alarm clocks go off at three thirty in the morning day after day, some crazy shit is going to go down.
For example, Operation Bambi.
The tongue-in-cheek name came to Bell honestly enough, when a staffer asked whether removing this person would be like “killing Bambi.” The question highlighted something Bell already knew: that this would not be just another ouster. It would be big news, in the business pages of The New York Times and in the celebrity weeklies, and, if not handled correctly by both NBC and the victim, a potentially fatal blow to many people’s careers. It would be discussed around water coolers, on Facebook and Twitter, in hair salons and restaurants and gyms—wherever plugged-in people, especially plugged-in women, congregate. That’s why the severing had to be handled very cleverly, very carefully, so smartly that when it was over, and despite what might get written on TMZ or Gawker, neither he nor his network would seem mean, and the question of jumped-or-was-pushed would remain at least a bit murky. That’s why it needed to be not just a “clean break” or pink slip or that classic cop-out, the phone call to the agent, but something layered and nuanced and, well, an Operation. Heck, with a little luck, he might even be able to give a reasonable observer the impression that the victim had been promoted—that the job they’d dreamed about had finally landed in their lap! That they’d no longer have to go to bed at nine p.m., dread the alarm clock at three thirty a.m., or tolerate strangers’ questions about their strange sleep patterns!
Elegant executions had been done before. When ABC nudged Good Morning America cohost Joan Lunden out the door in the late 1990s, she came out and claimed it was her doing, saying in a statement, “I have asked the executives of ABC to give me a chance to do something I’ve never done: wake up my own children with a smile, while they’re still children.” Here’s what Lunden now says really happened: “I called up and I said, ‘Look, you guys, let’s just say I want to leave. I’d rather leave with dignity; I don’t want to go to war with you guys; and it certainly behooves you guys not to make it look like you’re replacing me with a thirty-year-old look-alike of me.’ So we all agreed.” And the part about waking up her children with a smile? Nowadays she jokes, “I’m here to tell you that morning with children is highly overrated!”
But viewers bought her statement at the time. In this nearsighted business, that’s what matters most. The tearless termination was to the TV executive what the eighty-yard, post-two-minute-warning drive was to the football quarterback: a way to show his mettle. Bell was a pro. He could do this thing.
Of course, there were other possible outcomes as well, once Operation Bambi got rolling. Anyone who remembered the beyond-awkward transition from Jane Pauley to Deborah Norville on that same Today show in 1989 knew that the ousting of a familiar TV face—which ultimately was what this operation was all about—could also be horribly bungled. Things often turn out poorly when male television executives play chess with female personalities, moving them on, off, and around the set of a show that three million female viewers think of as theirs. Go figure.
Still, Bell, too, felt inextricably wound up in the Today show’s fortunes and he might have thought that he could deftly remove the cancer that was steadily killing the show—cohost Ann Curry, as you no doubt guessed a while back—without traumatizing the surrounding tissue. And he might have thought this for a couple of reasons. One was that while his boss, NBC News president Steve Capus, did not agree that Curry should be forced out, Capus’s boss Steve Burke did. Burke had a row all to himself on the intimidating NBC organizational chart, a row at the top. Burke was the chief executive of NBCUniversal, the man with the ultimate say over what happened on Today. And Burke said he backed Bell’s plan.
Another reason for Bell’s confidence was reinforced on the show every day, every time Curry stumbled through a transition or awkwardly whispered to a guest. He felt that her sheer badness as a broadcaster was apparent to all, and that a “promotion” to a better job that allowed her to “sleep in” and, of course, “spend more time with her family” would be greeted with a national sigh of relief.
Bell was just doing his job, which was to cure the show of problems as they arose and to maintain it in a state of apple-cheeked health, tasks that, if you consulted the record, he’d carried out admirably since inheriting the show in 2005. Cancer metaphors aside, Today, at that point, still had a record of performance that stoked envy throughout the television world. It had been number one in viewers, and number one in the coveted twenty-five-to-fifty-four age group known in industry lingo as “the demo,” for more than eight hundred weeks in a row. Read that again: eight hundred weeks. If that sounds high to you, imagine how much higher it sounds to the staff of ABC’s Good Morning America, who start every week with the knowledge that they are going to get whacked.
The fabled “streak,” as everyone called it, had started in 1995 when Jeff Zucker was the executive producer of Today. Zucker had taken over Today in 1992 at the tender age of twenty-six, at a time when the show was still struggling to recover from the Norville disaster. The idiom “burning the candle at both ends” might as well have been coined for Zucker, as evinced by his rapidly receding hairline. What Today enjoyed now was the TV equivalent of Joe DiMaggio’s 1941 fifty-six-game hitting streak, a number one record that seemed—to some, for a while—as if it would never be broken. You don’t achieve this kind of success by accident. You do it by consistently informing and entertaining your viewers. But wait, there’s more! Because this is morning television, you also do it by hoodwinking the Nielsen raters, figuring out sneaky ways to pay guests for interviews, sabotaging the competition, and spending a good deal of time and energy trying to divert attention from your stars’ sexual peccadilloes, marital problems, and monstrous personalities. So, like Zucker and others before him and like his counterparts at other networks, Bell was both doctor and witch doctor, fixing what was wrong, but sometimes dabbling in the dark TV arts, or at least looking the other way when his valued underlings did.
* * *
Let’s put this in perspective. Jim Bell does not under normal circumstances strike the people he works with, or the reporters who cover television, as a cynic, an a-hole, or a backstabber. To the contrary, he is, according to the testimony of many who know him well, a terribly nice guy, the kind who takes the time to e-mail a list of must-eats to a reporter who’s drinking his way through Barcelona on vacation. (Let me take this opportunity to thank him again for pointing the way to Euskal Etxea and Cal Pep.) A lot has been made of Bell’s physical size (at six foot four, he can be imposing) and his history as a Harvard football player, including by him. At his first meeting with Lauer, he famously described himself to the anchor as “a big guy who likes big challenges.” But Bell is also an unusually intelligent man, even if he sometimes conceals it behind his laconic sports-producer persona. He has a polymath’s fascination with the wide world of news and pop culture that Today inhabits, and a reputation as a straight shooter, inspiring deep loyalty among his senior staff. Though he has struggled at times to lose weight, he seems not to sweat at work. “You’d want him as your platoon leader in the trenches,” said one of his deputies. “The guy is just totally unflappable.”
Bell cracks jokes in the male-dominated control room with the best of them. He critiques his lower-rated competitors with a smile, almost always seeming to be an inch or two above it all, which he literally is. But by January he was showing signs of being affected by the grind and the burdens of morning TV, and, well, things happen. No wonder, then, that the friend who called him “unflappable” wouldn’t put his name to the quote, or that Bell wouldn’t put his control room jokes on the record so that they could be printed here. This is a genre that has claimed many victims, starting with Dave Garroway, the first host of the Today show when it premiered in 1952, the man whose on-air sidekick was not a smart-’n-sassy woman or a warm-’n-fuzzy weatherman but a chimpanzee named J. Fred Muggs. Garroway, perhaps not the most mentally healthy person to begin with, succumbed to the pressure of filling all that airtime, day after day, in a fascinating way. He saw ghosts, felt he was being followed everywhere, and eventually, long after he left the show, shot himself in the head.
No one was suggesting that Bell was about to go all Dave Garroway on himself or even pull an Arthur Godfrey (in 1953, morning show host Godfrey fired his popular house singer Julius LaRosa on the air; all these years later it still makes for a cringe-inducing moment). But tough stuff had indeed been happening on Bell’s watch. The ratings for the Today show had started to erode even before Vieira left in June 2011; her exit and Curry’s entrance sped up the trend, thus helping the long-suffering second-place GMA creep closer to first. As if the vulnerability of the streak, now nearly sixteen years long, wasn’t enough to quicken the pulse, the biggest star of the show—Lauer—was thinking about leaving Today at the end of his contract cycle. The fact that he was being forced to sit next to Curry was one motivating factor for Lauer—it’s hard enough to wake up in the middle of the night when you adore your coworker, and it’s even harder when you don’t. Lauer was firmly in the “don’t” camp. But there were other factors, too, like his wife, Annette, who had stayed with him despite several rounds of very public, very painful rumors about his extramarital affairs. Annette wanted him to retire, and some days he felt the same impulse. This was hard work, much harder than most viewers ever realized. If he left, what would happen to Today? Bell had no obvious successor lined up.
Given that Bell faced so many huge problems in such a short time, could anyone criticize him too harshly for coming up with Operation Bambi? Convinced, as he was, that Curry had to go, the operation as he saw it had three parts: a) convince Lauer to extend his contract, which was set to expire in December 2012, b) remove Curry from the chair next to Lauer’s, and c) replace Curry with the up-and-coming cohost of the nine a.m. hour of Today, Savannah Guthrie. Yes, this was all very perilous, but as still another kind of doctor, Hippocrates, told us, desperate times call for desperate measures.
But what is it that makes morning show people so desperate, so murderous of their colleagues and competitors, so willing to bend the rules? It’s all because the stakes are so high. Today and GMA are the pinnacle of the television profession. For NBC and ABC, respectively, they are the profit centers of the news divisions that produce them; they basically subsidize the rest of the day’s news coverage. In the Most Valuable Viewer category, otherwise known as “the demo,” every hundred thousand viewers represent roughly ten million dollars in advertising revenue yearly. In other words: convince one hundred thousand more MVVs to watch every day and make ten million dollars. Spur the same number to stop watching and watch the ad dollars evaporate. No wonder the producers of these shows pop Tums as they await the overnight ratings. Their jobs and the jobs of many beneath them hang in the balance. And besides, media moguls don’t like to lose.
What people not in the business sometimes don’t get is that being number one in the ratings has a value all its own. Not just in the amount that the winning show’s salespeople can extract from advertisers—though there’s that: Today took almost five hundred million dollars in 2011, 150 million more than GMA—but in reputation, in influence, in sheer television industry power. Today had the upper hand in booking A-list celebrities. It had the clout to insist that a politician talk to Lauer before anyone else. It had the right to call itself “America’s first family.”
But all of that was at risk now for Bell, Lauer, and the rest of the Today show staff, and not just because GMA was trying to claw its way to number one. The rules of morning TV were changing as cable TV, the Internet, and cell phones all gave people more choices when they wake up. Why wait for Al Roker’s weather forecast on Today when the Weather Channel’s phone app can tell you whether it’s going to rain? What’s the point of a sixty-second stock market preview when CNBC’s business-minded morning show Squawk Box is only a remote click away? There were a dozen morning shows on TV in January 2012, all with specific audiences in mind—conservatives got Fox & Friends, golf nuts got Morning Drive, Capitol Hill wonks got Washington Journal. The most innovative of the bunch was Morning Joe, a political chatfest that dismissed most of the conventions of morning TV and won over most of official Washington and media-centric New York. Like Squawk Box and Today and a third of the Weather Channel, it was owned by Comcast.
Individually, no cable TV show or Web site or app could challenge Today or GMA, each of which attracted five million viewers at any given time. But cumulatively all the competition was inching closer to—or maybe it’s better to say dragging down—the Top of the Morning. In fact, in the very month that Operation Bambi took shape in Bell’s brain, January 2012, still another option appeared, a hard-nosed newscast called CBS This Morning. CBS had been languishing in third place in the morning show wars ever since there were three networks to choose from. But the fact that the network was still trying after all these years—this time with a completely remade-from-scratch show led by Charlie Rose—was a testimony to the profits and wondrous possibilities of morning TV. And, if you don’t get it right, the pain.
America’s First Family
What’s truly interesting about this proliferating panoply is not so much that it came into existence—the whole world is breaking down into niches—but that the very numerousness of the options worked to alter the nature of morning TV shows, institutions that have always seen themselves as being in the familiarity industry, and thus have historically been about as open to change as your average seventy-six-year-old Roman Catholic cardinal. Consider, gentle reader, that it’s been time to see, in the immortal words of Al Roker, “what’s happening in your neck of the woods,” for sixty friggin’ years now.
Actually, Roker, the current Today weatherman, hadn’t even been born when NBC gave birth to the show. But even on the very first day—Monday, January 14, 1952—Garroway scrawled regional weather forecasts on a chalkboard map of the country and spoke as if he knew the tape would be preserved for history. Today, he predicted, presaged “a new kind of television.” He was right. Watching the tape today, it’s remarkable to see how many now-familiar features of morning television were a part of the original recipe. Not just the weather; even back then there were short newscasts, live shots from other cities, and sidekicks who humanized Garroway and cracked jokes and generally made Today feel like a family. There was even a clock in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, next to a ticker of newspaper headlines. GMA borrowed the recipe when it came on the air in 1975, though it fiddled with the specifics slightly, opting for instance for a softer, more conversational style and a studio that was supposed to look like a suburban home, not a newsroom. GMA was Pepsi to the Today show’s Coke; the greatest rivalry in television was on. It continues to this day.
In the early part of the 2010s, though, the morning menu became in almost every way noticeably…more so. Which is to say that the fluffy show, GMA, became fluffier, the “serious” portions of the long-running shows were spun off into distinct brands such as Morning Joe, and the perennially “other” show—whatever it is they are calling the CBS a.m. entry at the moment you’re reading this book—became more “other.”
Perhaps you noticed that Today was missing from the previous sentence. That right there points to the show’s single biggest problem. In a media universe that was changing at a revolutionary pace, the Today show…wasn’t. As one senior staffer memorably said in 2012 when a bunch of brand strategists showed up at Today to help retool it, “If I look at the show, I am not sure I’d know what year it is.” This from one of the smart people in charge of a show called Today.
* * *
GMA, on the other hand, looked very much like, no pun intended, today, and possibly even the future. After a gut renovation in 2011 the pace of the show was faster, the banter between the hosts was snappier, and the hosts themselves were smiley-er, something experts had once thought was not possible. The screen literally looked brighter than it used to be, and the show’s stories were, too: in preshow meetings, producers fretted about not broadcasting too much “darkness” as viewers were just rubbing their eyes and putting on their slippers. So while the lurid crime-of-the-day segments at seven thirty were still deemed necessary (“Without them, viewers reject the show,” one of the anchors said), they were balanced by viral videos of stupid human tricks and no small number of stories about celebrity crushes and “bags that compliment your body type” and morbidly obese house cats.
Loyalists to Today liked to describe GMA as smutty, crappy, and, most of all, tabloid. But in the face of such criticism, the man in the GMA control room overseeing the renovation, James Goldston, just shrugged. What he was producing, he thought, was what morning TV was supposed to be. “If I had any mission,” he said later, “it was to bring more FUN to the show.… If it’s boring to you, it’s going to be boring to the audience. So make it entertaining. You can be serious, you can be very serious, but even if it’s serious it has to be entertaining.”
No one disputes that the morning shows are supposed to be entertaining as well as informative—look no further than the chimp on the Today show set in the 1950s for proof of that. The philosophical battle is over the mix—the exact proportions of light versus dark, of You Should Know This versus You’ll Enjoy This. With Goldston in charge, GMA, aware that You Should Know This was always just a click away, skated as fast as it could to You’ll Enjoy This. George Stephanopoulos was front and center, to suggest gravitas, but everyone understood that Bill Clinton’s former communications director wasn’t, by himself, the reason people came to their party. No, GMA got its five million daily viewers by front-loading the show with the fast and frivolous, the criminal and the cute. (In 2013 Jon Stewart called Stephanopoulos a “contractual hostage.”) Some of the cutest stories were a weird fit for Stephanopoulos, Robin Roberts, and weatherman Sam Champion, but that didn’t matter so much because Ben Sherwood, the man who had put Goldston in charge of GMA in 2011, had added two new partiers: Josh Elliott, a hunky import from ESPN, and Lara Spencer, an entertainment reporter who served as the show’s social butterfly.
These people not only related well to the viewers, they got along like chums, or so it seemed from the many GMA segments in which they relayed stories about their time spent hanging out when the cameras were off. Yes, the members of the team butted egos once in a while, as people with Macy’s-parade-balloon-size egos will, but overall adored each other compared to the way the Today team coexisted, which was, in a word, tensely: Lauer and Curry rarely if ever saw each other away from the set.
Some journalism professors and surely some ex-viewers cringed at the morn-porn being churned out by ABC. So did some people close to GMA, like Charles Gibson, who had cohosted the show with Lunden in the 1990s and with Diane Sawyer until 2006. Gibson, who could still remember a day on GMA when he’d moderated a long debate about the existence of God, disliked what he called the “pop-culture news” format of the current show. But no one could say that the recipe—which was really only a recipe in the sense that “deep-fried Oreos” is a recipe—wasn’t working. In the overnight ratings that both networks obsessed about, GMA, the perpetual runner-up, was, in late 2011 and early 2012, cutting into the Today
- On Sale
- Nov 5, 2019
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Grand Central Publishing