Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie have an easygoing rapport. He teases her about the gender of her expected child. She makes fun of the way he decorates his wall of his dressing room. And while the relationship seems genuine, it’s also required: Millions of dollars are invested in their ability to get along.
As the co-hosts of the first two hours of NBC’s “Today,” Guthrie and Lauer are the faces of an enterprise that even Wall Street deems essential to the financial workings of NBC, the Comcast-owned broadcast network that has aired “Today” since 1952. They say the show is emerging after a rough patch that gave ABC rival “Good Morning America” room to seize the first-place slot that “Today” held for years.
On screen, and in person, the work seems effortless. Behind the scenes, it is not as easy. Both anchors describe a day that starts well before most people even hit the snooze button their alarms or radios. Guthrie is up at 3 a.m. – an hour earlier than her co-host – to digest the latest on breaking stories and coming segments. She gets up earlier than most so she can have her evenings to herself, she says. Lauer is up just after 4 a.m.
While their portion of “Today” ends a few hours later, at 9 a.m., their day is only revving into gear. They may have to broadcast a fresh opening for viewers on the west coast. They also regularly attend a daily post-mortem on the show they just finished as well as a subsequent discussion about what stories ought to be highlighted in the days ahead. They have to conduct interviews, and even help with bookings. In the evenings, they must keep abreast of the latest details on the topics that will be relevant by dawn.
Below, in a lightly edited July interview that is one of the first substantial talks the two have held with a media outlet in some time, the morning hosts discuss “Today’s” newsier focus, Lauer’s recent decision to stick with the show and balancing the close ties they form with their audience and the need to keep things from getting too familiar.
Variety: In your mind, what is the brand of the show? What is the filter of ‘Today’?
Lauer: I think our show has always been driven by news. It’s what motivates us to get up each morning. It’s our mission statement here to cover the news of the day. I think it’s also news with the ability to find a way to lift up people at the end of a day. We cover the news completely and thoroughly with no holds barred, every story that’s breaking, but each day we try to find something to hang on to that each day people go of to work with a little bit of hope in their hearts. It’s not always easy, but that’s what we try to do. That’s our brand.
Guthrie: The best legacy of the “Today” show I think is just excellent coverage of news. The other part of it is this great balance we have with having some fun, doing innovative things, creating big special moments. That’s why I watch the “Today” show and we continue to be really good at that. What distinguishes it from the competitors, whether it’s cable or “GMA” or CBS or whoever is just the quality of the broadcast and the selection of stories that we are covering.
Variety: “Good Morning America’ has been fueled in the last few years by a lot of personal revelations by their anchors. Does that add some pressure for you folks to add that dimension to the show?
Guthrie I don’t think so. Those are real people working at “Good Morning America”and those are real struggles Amy and Robin have been through. It’s not easy to go through that on national television. And so I don’t think – I’ll speak for myself: I don’t think that we look at that as a competitive issue, or find ourselves needing a way to compete. I take your point: The viewers become very interested in those stories because there’s something special about morning television and people feel connected to you. I don’t think we are looking in any way to try to match that.
Lauer: I think you need to do what makes you comfortable. It has to be genuine to the type of person you are. And some of us are more willing to share everything about our lives than others. Some of us are more private about our lives after 9 a.m. than others. There are some events in our lives that are joyous to share. Savannah is pregnant. We can’t hide it any more. And it has been wonderful to watch her go through this pregnancy and be willing to share what she’s going through with our viewers. Do I then anticipate that Savannah, once the baby – little Matt – is born that she is going to take the viewers through every moment of little Matt’s life? I don’t think she’s that person. And I’m not that person. I think you handle it the way that makes you comfortable. The same way you would handle it at home, you handle it on air.
Guthrie: It’s fun to share a joyous event, but I think that – [to Lauer] I know you think about this, and I always worried about it – you don’t want to do too much. You don’t want to shove it down peoples’ throats and we are here first and foremost to put on a television show. People are interested, and I’m genuinely touched by that. It makes you feel good when you see our viewers on the Plaza and they are so happy for you or they knit you a blanket. How could you not be incredibly touched by that? But I think getting that balance right …This is not the ‘Savannah Is Pregnant Show,’ not by a long stretch,and I hope we do a good job of doing a little bit of coverage of those kind of issues where it makes sense but not overdoing it.
Variety: You’ve been doing a blog about the pregnancy…
Guthrie: The blog is fine. I feel like it’s online and if people are interested, they can look at it. It’s not a television show where you don’t have any choice.
Lauer: We’ve talked about this a lot over the years….There’s more than one way to share pieces of yourself, and to let the viewers get to know you. My theory has always been it’s better to do it in a very organic way, and if people watch this show on a regular basis over a long period of time, they are going to get to know me because of the little things I drop, little comments in the middle of an interview, if we’re doing an interview on childhood vaccinations, where I’ll mention my ten-year-old, Romy, or my thirteen-year-old or we do, you know, a story on crazy parents at Little League who are overzealous with their kids and I’ll tell a story about my son Jack and Little League. They learn about you by what you say in an interview, what you ask and what you don’t ask, and to me that has always been a really great thing. I want people to learn about me, but I don’t want to go, “Bleah! This is me. Can you sit there? In the next 15 minutes I’m going to tell you everything you need to know about my life.” That’s never made me comfortable. I’ve always been comfortable with the fact that if you give me your ear over a fairly long period of time, you’re going to know about me at the end of that period of time.
Guthrie: We don’t want to overestimate the interest in us personally. We don’t think that’s why people turn on the show. Maybe my mom. That’d be it.
Variety (to Lauer): Can I ask you about your decision to re-sign and your thought process there?
Lauer: I don’t really think it was a difficult decision at all. I have had now 17-something years on this show. I have always said and truly believe it is the best job in television, but, slash, the job I am best cut out to do. It is the job if I had to look, and I did 25 years ago… if somebody said, “What was your dream job?’ it was always, ‘I want to be involved with the ‘Today’ show.” Now that I have this job, I can’t think of another job that I want. I can’t imagine another job that would fit my limited skill set as well. I love the people I work with. I said to the staff, in just a little meeting we had to say I was sticking around, I blame Savannah. I love working with her. I am having a good time. I love the direction the show is taking. I think – we, I’ll be blunt. I’ll be honest: I think we lost our way a little bit a while ago. I think we started doing stories that weren’t kind of connecting to the people we are and I think we’ve pulled that back. And that uplift I talked about is something that I always felt strongly about. So if you like where the show is going, you love the people you work with and you think you’ve got the best job in television, it’s not a hard decision, especially when they are so nice to you here to say ‘Yeah, I’m staying around.’
Variety (to Lauer): And it’s for two-plus years?
Lauer: I don’t… [Makes motion to indicate no comment]
Variety: Do you feel like the importance accorded the morning shows is growing, especially as technology is changing the way people watch the programs?
Guthrie: I do not pretend to be someone who closely watches the numbers, but it’s always been my impression that morning television, morning news has always been an area of continued growth. You don’t see the hand-wringing that you see about the other sectors of the news business where they are shedding viewers….I think part of the reason is that we now live in a world where people are checking their phones. The appetite for news is, I think, larger than ever. The various sources of news are wider than ever, and there is something great about waking up and knowing that OK if I turn on the “Today” show, they are going to kind of sift through it and curate the most important stories of the day.
Lauer: It’s also a very personal thing. When we walk down the street away from the studio and people recognize us, it’s almost semantics. It’s a subtle little difference. People will walk up to us separately or together and they don’t’ say, “I watch you on the news.” They say, “I start my day with you.” That’s a very interesting and important difference. People are investing this very important time of their morning with you and they do feel as if you are part of their family.
Variety: When you see this ABC decision to make George Stephanopoulos the “chief anchor” of ABC News, does it suggest that the people who anchor the morning news shows have more of a “face” with the viewer or more of a connection to the viewer?
Lauer: We have longer to talk each morning….You get to know people either in one fell swoop or you get to know people by osmosis over a long period of time. You do feel as if you are more connected to the people you get morning news from.
Variety: Is the ratings battle on your mind at all?
Lauer: Sure. Absolutely. We are commercial television. This is not PBS. We are not just sitting here for our own egos. Yes, there’s no question about it, we work for a network that cares about ratings, as all networks do. But I will say that one of the things we have been really good about doing over the last year, or year and a half, is paying less attention to what they do and more attention to what we want to be doing, what we want to be known for – back to your very first question, What do we want our brand to be? We spend a lot of time on what sounds like a very elementary exercise, but stopping and asking ourselves that very question, sometimes just writing a mission statement when you haven’t had one for a long time, other than “We’re the Today Show,” is a valuable process.