Matt Lauer must be feeling his oats these days. Fresh off his new $25 million-per-year contract, he is getting his reported wish of dumping co-anchor Ann Curry in order to help the "Today" franchise fend off a challenge from rival "Good Morning America."
Were it only so simple.
Sure, in the rarefied circles of media insiders, Lauer may have vaulted a few spots on the requisite power lists. But if he and NBC aren't careful, he stands to lose as this tricky transition plays out on the bigger, more treacherous stage of public opinion.
Put yourself in the sensible shoes of the soccer moms who are the foundation of the "Today" fan base, and Curry's departure could come off in a way that isn't too flattering for Lauer. The broad strokes of the media coverage to date appears as: 'Today' is in trouble, Curry is the weak link, and Lauer believes she needs to go.
And that narrative will only get worse on TV where Lauer risks looking caddish as he tosses aside his on-air partner and trades her in for what will probably be a younger, more conventionally beautiful-looking woman, if the reports of the ascendance of Savannah Guthrie and Natalie Morales are to be believed.
Oh, the soccer moms are going to just looove that.
On an almost primal level, the Lauer-Curry pairing feels uncomfortably close to a bad Lifetime movie. She devoted 15 years of her life to "Today" only to get kicked to the curb to make room for another female. And whether you like Curry or not, viewers have to be feeling for her given the beating she is taking in the press.
You could argue that Lauer is a non-factor in all this because when it comes down to it, she was falling out of favor with an audience who by and large may want to see her go. It certainly can't be as simple as Lauer wanted her out, so now she's out. His belief in the necessity of her departure is no doubt backed by audience research suggesting she was not a good fit opposite him on "Today."
While that's all well and good, Curry couldn't have gotten this far for so long without winning over some significant minority of women who don't mind her robotic mannerisms or bad chemistry with Lauer. And isn't a little odd that for all the years she played a supporting role on "Today" there were no warning signs that she lacked the goods for the top job?
Part of the problem here is that Lauer and NBC have already made an irreversible mistake. When The New York Times first reported the prospect of Curry departing, they would have been wiser to do everything possible to present to reporter Brian Stelter that Lauer not as an agitator for change but a passive observer or even better, someone who actually fought for her to stay because he's that swell a guy.
Audience research showing Curry was falling out of favor should have been leaked, shifting responsibility away from Lauer and more firmly toward the science of research. "We're just doing the bidding of our audience," should have been the subtext of the anonymous quote given to NYT.
Instead, now we have Lauer looking like a $25 million diva who gets what he wants because he has that power. And when that sentiment filters down to the "Today" audience, it's not a good thing.
There will be an opportunity for Lauer to redeem his reputation when the time comes for Lauer to bid his on-air goodbye to Curry. As the consummate pro of either exuding goodwill or faking sincerity, Lauer is going to have to yank tears out of his ducts even if he hates the woman with every cell in his body.
But even if cries a river, how the circumstances for her departure is going to be explained on the air is absolutely crucial. That's why it's essential that NBC figure out an alternative role for her within the organization that doesn't feel like a demotion. The network would also look bad because given Curry's supposed preference for serious journalism, the network doesn't want to be seen turning away someone capable of substantive reporting.
Whether she stays or goes is largely up to her new representative, Robert Barnett. The big question is whether he's having conversations with other networks about Curry carrying on elsewhere. At the end of the day, Barnett is going to weigh whatever NBC's consolation-prize deal is against outside offers and make a decision.
For Lauer's sake, he might best hope she sticks around.