Matt? Savannah?GMA? NBC execs? You won't believe who did what in this summer network mystery special!
When high crimes are committed against network news careers you can be sure of one thing: finger prints are never left behind. Given the challenge, this kind of unsolved mystery needs a top television sleuth, someone willing to follow the trail while the blood is still fresh and revisionist publicists have yet to spin the story into infinity.
Preferably, the best choice to solve the high-profile case of the sudden disappearance of Ann Curry should have experience in the crime beat of morning news. So, for the greater good (of the blogosphere, at least) I must volunteer myself, a long-time morning show executive and, just like NBC's Detective Olivia Benson, a crime fighter whose skills have been sharpened by once having suffered a personal assault as well.
And so we begin, first examining the suspects who were last seen with the victim, sitting on that couch as she tearfully said goodbye to her beloved audience. Natalie? No, she's not All About Eve. Al? No, he doesn't even qualify as a red herring although he likes to eat them. Matt? Now, we might want to put Matt in a line-up, at least, and not because he's just re-signed a ridiculous new contract, one we can fairly assume was designed to make all his dreams come true. No, we just need to look at the victim's body language. Weighing the Curry Cringe with Matt v. a Teddy Bear Hug with Al (below), Matt's not off the hook quite yet.
Moving on to the next obvious suspect: the one who would benefit, the one with the possible motive. Did Savannah Guthrie throw Mama from the train? Of course not. All news divisions are populated by highly ambitious on- and off-air talent who are working their asses off to get rewarded with the next big assignment or job. Savannah is someone who should be fast-tracked.
So what about those NBC executives? Yes, they get to pick and choose who works where, with whom and for how long. In the bigger picture I'm not sure one can find fault with their master plan to pair Matt and Savannah. But let's face it: this was a bona fide disaster.
Is there no one left with the institutional memory of the disastrous swap of the beloved Jane Pauley for the seemingly blonder and younger Deborah Norville? Doesn't NBC recall how that bone-headed transition derailed Norville's career and rest of the morning show for a while?
Ann Curry's sudden two-minute-eleven-second gut-wrenching Today Show sign-off Thursday still has loyal viewers up in arms and competitors scratching their heads. If there is a game change in the morning, this time it won't be from a performance or content issue, but from synchronized executive fumbles.
Curry tearfully told her viewers: "I'm sorry I didn't make it across the finish line." That's not true, she got to the anchor chair and here's where the mystery gets interesting. Ann Curry cannot be blamed for the current Today Show ratings problem. The narrowing of the gap with Good Morning America actually began as the result of the disaster at CBS This Morning. CBS's audience has been eroding (sorry but true, since the end of my tenure as senior executive producer in 2008), and with their latest team they've been hemorrhaging viewers -- to GMA.
Think of the morning show pie splitting between the Today Show and alternatives to the Today Show. When CBS brought in Charlie Rose and Gayle King, a big chunk of its (remaining) viewers went to GMA, which had added Josh Elliot and Lara Spencer... fresh new faces to sample.
This isn't to diminish GMA at all. There have been plenty of times in morning show history when viewers tune out from one show and never land at another; morning viewers can and do just disappear.
Now just look at the recent Nielsen ratings for the three network morning shows for the week of June 18:
Total Viewers: NBC: 4.59M / ABC: 4.46M / CBS: 2.14M
A25-54 viewers: NBC: 1.84M / ABC: 1.63M / CBS: 759K
That CBS only has an Adults 25-54 audience of 759,000 viewers is the most shocking part of this story. But I'll leave that issue for CBS shareholders to worry about for now. The truth is, GMA has benefited greatly from executive fumbles at CBS: first, their failure to understand what morning news consumers want as they begin their day and second, their failure to even try to understand what morning viewers want as underlined by executive quotes such as "Steve Jobs never bothered with market research."
Which brings us back to the question of who actually shoved Ann "Mama" Curry from the morning train? Charlie Rose did, of course. He bled viewers to GMA, which narrowed the gap with Today and sent NBC executives into a panic (who were also pretty concerned at how "checked out" Matt has looked for the past year).
Those same execs were too busy worrying about making Matt happy to notice there had been no natural disasters or news cycles that played to Ann's strengths. What's more, in taking the pulse of the country right now political savvy (Savannah's muscle flex) trumps earnest (Ann's signature), especially at a network that still has not filled the void left by Tim Russert.
This veteran morning show detective suspects NBC execs are counting on the excitement from the torch of the Olympics to burn away the remaining evidence at this week's crime scene. It may for the duration of the games, but they shouldn't underestimate the loyalty of the morning audience. For a while, they will at least keep Matt on a suspect list (just read the blogosphere and see how many believe he had the power to get her to stay).
Once upon a time ABC executives were convinced Charlie Gibson was too old to anchor a morning show and replaced him with Kevin Newman. Gibson's loyal fans were a relatively small percentage, but after he left nearly a million viewers drifted away, forcing the show into a free fall into third place for the first time ever. (Bringing him back in 1999 also brought back many of those loyal viewers.)
I'd bet that Ann Curry must have at least twice as many viewers who love her and don't like how she was unceremoniously dumped this week, especially with Meredith Viera's two-hour farewell extravaganza so vivid in Today Show viewers' minds.
Is it not too late for some noble gesture... like Matt Lauer honoring Ann Curry with an annual Today Show journalism scholarship in her name which goes to a student who wants to report on victims of civil wars, natural disasters or just for the good of mankind?
Giving Matt a new co-host will certainly make anchoring more interesting for him, which is vitally important to the continuing success of the broadcast. And Savannah Guthrie deserves a hearty welcome. This, however, will not solve the Today Show problems which can be summed up simply: the arrogance of being No. 1 for so long.
The new GMA, whether you enjoy all the added celebrity fluff or not, is now undeniably a confident show that knows what it is. Today is stale, formulaic and feels like it is now second-guessing itself. (CBS: sadly no longer relevant in the mix.)
Here's the final challenge: If GMA can narrow the gap again in the weeks after the Olympics (and that's a big "if,") Today will have to prove they have what it takes for a real morning battle. GMA, which has blown the taking of the crown before (from just a whisper away), still has a staff of street fighters who think out of the box with every booking large and small. It's in their DNA.
When you're the premiere morning show, as Today has been for all these years, one more or less can "play catch" with bookings as everyone pitches you first. Only once did I enjoy the experience of what that must be like. The Olympics were in Australia, simply too far away and in too inconvenient a time zone to contact Today. My phone rang off the hook for those two glorious weeks where I could say "yes, no, yes, no" and so easily fill the shows.
Okay, so producing Today is more complicated than that. But any show that's beaten everyone for 895 straight weeks in the key demographic (younger) audience, naturally suffers the "arrogance of being number one." (Just look at how formulaic the Fox News primetime line up has become without a real challenger.)
Now that GMA is the closest to winning the No. 1 spot in 17 years it will be fascinating to watch. If they do, indeed, take the lead will it be due to their own true grit and merit or simply because both their competitors tripped. On the other hand,Today could always drop that arrogance, fix the toxic culture which allowed for the anonymous sliming of a loyal and dedicated journalist like Ann Curry and acknowledge it's time to let lowest ebb bring in a new tide.
Shelley Ross has been executive producer of ABC's Good Morning America and Primetime Live and senior executive producer of CBS' The Early Show.