‘Today’ producer cautiously moves forward

Wald studies room for improvement

NEW YORK — How do you improve upon success? That’s the question facing Jonathan Wald, who in May took over the reins of the “Today” show from its previous executive producer, Jeff Zucker.

The ayem juggernaut is one of the most profitable programs in television history; its success helped propel Zucker, the wunderkind behind the show’s record-winning streak, to the post NBC Entertainment prexy.

Big shoes to fill. But Wald, 35, who previously was exec producer of “NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw,” takes it in stride. “Nobody remembers Phil Bankston. He’s the guy who followed Vince Lombardi at the Green Bay Packers,” the self-effacing Wald jokes.

But Wald isn’t exactly a novice. While at “Nightly News,” he oversaw an award-winning newscast and managed to maintain its No. 1 position.

As Wald gears up for the show’s 50th anniversary in January and the Winter Olympics in February, he is studying each element of the show to see if they’re performing at 100% capacity.

“Is there room for improvement in some of the segments? Absolutely. The truth is that the show doesn’t go on because it’s ready. It goes on because it’s 7 a.m.,” he confesses.

Wald says he is trying to inject new ideas slowly, since morning auds tend to get turned off by dramatic changes.

For the moment, though, the question on everybody’s mind is whether co-anchor Katie Couric will exit once her contract expires next year.

Wald says the issue doesn’t keep him up at nights.

“If you know her, you know she is exceedingly happy in one of the best jobs on TV. That’s very hard to walk away from.”

However, Wald’s competish is hoping that the recent exec shuffle at “Today” will give them some breathing room.

“Any time the status quo is upset, it’s good news for those of us who want the status quo to be upset,” says Steve Friedman, exec producer of CBS News’ “The Early Show.”

Friedman points out that while “Today” is one of the “crown jewels of television,” it has gone through some rocky periods over the years.

“You have to be in awe of the history of the show when you take it over. You know the show is bigger than you are,” adds Friedman, who exec produced it from 1979-87 and 1993-94. “You just hope you’re not the one who screws up.”

Others question his cautious approach. “If you stay in a formula, the world will pass you by,” says Shelley Ross, exec producer of ABC News’ “Good Morning America.”

Still, Wald has spent many year in the trenches — and many years observing first-hand how the news machine works: His father, Dick Wald, served as president of both NBC News and ABC News.

Few in the industry would suggest that nepotism helped Wald land his latest gig — NBC isn’t foolhardy enough to play favoritism with such a high-profile position.

“It would flatter my dad to think he could have that much power,” Wald says.

“Both of us always wanted my career to be my career and not any version of his career,” adds Wald, who began working as a desk assistant at NBC News in 1983 while still in college. “My dad expects me to support him in his old age, so he wants me to succeed. Really he just wants me off the streets.”

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