Savannah Guthrie began her tenure Monday as the co-anchor on Today, taking over from Ann Curry, whom NBC unceremoniously dumped eleven days prior.
Guthrie ascended to the job under a cloud of network blunders that left many wondering if viewers would blame her for Curry's curt dismissal.
If Guthrie's solid debut is any indication, she looks likely to win the skeptics over. She rose to the challenge from the moment her name was first announced on air. Her smile was so contagious that even Matt Lauer grinned ear to ear for the first time in months. They both couldn't stop beaming throughout their first official broadcast as a new team.
A nine minute package introduced the audience to Guthrie and her "weird sense of humor," as Lauer said.
After the drama of the last few weeks culminating in Curry's ouster, Guthrie's nervous charm and infectious grin were exactly what Lauer and viewers needed to restore a sense of normalcy and calm to the morning program stalwart. Guthrie alluded to the unfortunate circumstances under which she was promoted, noting, "This was a little unexpected, as we all know."
To Guthrie's credit, she was the first person in eleven days to utter the name of "she-who-must-not-be-named" when she said, "I'm so proud and honored to be in a place occupied by so many women that I admire," and led with Curry's name before listing the other female co-anchors in Today's history.
It stood in stark contrast to the last time Lauer and Guthrie were on air together, the day after Curry's abrupt exit. During that awkward broadcast, the show's announcer never said the names of Lauer and Guthrie during the opening voiceover, nor did their names appear on screen as they normally would. The camera cut straight to them, as they launched right into the morning's top stories without any banter.
Hours later, NBC released a terse press release confirming the obvious: Guthrie was officially the new co-anchor of Today.
By treating Guthrie's promotion as something shameful, relegated to a Friday afternoon press release (where news hoping to fly under the radar goes to die), it highlighted a pattern of bungled decision making among NBC's top brass.
One year ago when Meredith Vieira resigned after five years at Today, producers gave her a well-deserved two hour send-off that featured tearful montages and recollections from her fellow anchors, as well as the entire NBC family gathering on the plaza to lip synch Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," in a surprise for their beloved colleague.
For Curry's forced farewell, producers placed a stone-faced Lauer, a solemn Al Roker, and a weepy Natalie Morales, on the couch alongside Curry.
Curry proceeded to deliver one of the most gut-wrenching goodbyes in TV history. "For all of you who saw me as a groundbreaker, I'm sorry I couldn't get to the finish line, but man, I did try."
It was painful to watch Curry's anguish as she spoke directly to the viewers. "I have loved you. And I have wanted to give you the world. And I still do."
After Curry's stunning display of emotion, her co-stars mustered ad-hoc recollections of their favorite stories she had covered, yet there were no clips of happier-days-gone-by. Curry's exit had been in the works for at least a week, if not months, which gave producers plenty of time to pull together a fitting tribute from her 15 years of material. Instead, the goodbye appeared arranged in haste, and the compliments, especially from a grim Lauer, rang hollow.
Curry proved her worth by taking the high road throughout the difficult week leading up to her removal. The New York Times leaked stories on the behind-the-scenes negotiations almost every night and wondered if she would show up for work each day. Despite the personal tone of the mean-spirited leaks, Curry remained a consummate professional. She held her head high and performed her job, never letting the strain show on air. She was an all around class act.
Her demeanor, as well as her accomplishments, will stand as her legacy.
Curry's accomplishments include covering violence and ethnic cleansing in Sudan where she reported six times; interviewing the Dalai Lama; broadcasting live from the South Pole; climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise awareness about the pending water crisis caused by melting glaciers; and interviewing countless world leaders, including Iran's President Ahmadinejad, who broke the news to her that Iran would release the two American hikers his country held hostage for two years.
Alongside Katie Couric, Lauer and Roker, Curry was part of the team that secured Today's 16-year winning streak in the ratings. This April, a resurgent Good Morning America snapped that streak. GMA now trades the #1 spot in the ratings with Today on a daily basis.
Though the streak was broken during Curry's watch, she wasn't the sole anchor and shouldn't receive all of the blame.
Much has been made of Curry's lack of chemistry with Lauer. But why is lack of chemistry Curry's fault alone? It takes two people to create chemistry. Did Lauer make any special effort to connect with Curry and make her feel welcome in the chair next to him, as he did with Vieira?
It was rumored when he signed his new $25 million contract with Today in April, he specified he didn't want Curry as his co-anchor any more.
Guthrie herself is now in a difficult position after replacing Curry. She risks a perception of the Jane Pauley/Deborah Norville debacle when Pauley was usurped by the younger, blonder, Norville. Viewers left Today in droves and Norville was out within a year. That was in 1989 and GMA was closing in on Today in the ratings, which sounds familiar.
In her favor, unlike the frosty Norville, Guthrie is likeable, spunky and intelligent. She's a goofy kid sister but with an edge. She must be disappointed to start this coveted, high profile job under uncomfortable circumstances, but she never cracked under the scrutiny. The smile on her face during her entire first day radiated pure joy.
Everyone in the business understands there's no such thing as permanent job security. The nature of the medium leaves an anchor's fate to the mercy of fickle viewers and fearful network executives prone to shuffle deck chairs at the slightest ratings hiccup.
Time will tell if Guthrie's enthusiasm, charm and smarts are enough to keep her in the job longer than Curry.
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