Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV

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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.
 

 

 

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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/

Act 1

Operation Bambi

Chapter 1

Operation Bambi

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?

Two things.

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.

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