Natalie Morales Al Roker Today Show

For many people, “Today” wouldn’t be “Today” without Natalie Morales and Al Roker.

The show’s news anchor and meteorologist have been with the program since 2006 and 1996, respectively. These days, when the show comes on the air, the camera is on four people – Morales and Roker as well as Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie – not just the two leads. It’s all part of a new and broader focus on all the hosts of NBC’s four hours of toast-and-orange-juice programming that comes as the Peacock works to revamp the program to make it more competitive in the intense morning-show wars.

SEE ALSO: ‘Today’ vs. ‘Good Morning America’: Morning News Race Heats 

Below, in a lightly edited interview held in Roker’s dressing room at “Today,” the two discuss the future of the format and offer some historical perspective behind one of TV’s most competitive slugfests.

Variety: What do you think is the difference between “Today” and “Good Morning America”?

Morales: I think it’s just the family atmosphere that we have here. We all know each other well, We all get along great and as the cast expands, we’ve added new members to the family and I think we’ve really come to be in the moment, and right now, I feel like the time is ours.

Roker: There’s an authenticity here. It’s not a forced atmosphere. What happens, happens. Some days it’s a party. And we have a good time. Other days, look at the news….What really drives this is it’s a news broadcast. As the day changes, as the hours change, our show evolves. What’s on at 9 is different than what we are doing at 7. In a way, that gives us the luxury to focus more on what matters and the hard news early on, because we have 8 and 9 and 10 for lighter things.

Variety: Do you feel a pressure to get more ‘personal’ on air, given the interest accorded some of the “GMA” hosts who have done that?

Roker: Listen, what Robin [Roberts] went through could have been devastating. Obviously, it was life altering for her. But we’ve gone through that as well. Morning is a different broadcast, because you are in people’s homes when they are most vulnerable, and so in a sense, you share that vulnerability. Katie [Couric]’s husband passed from colon cancer and she made it her mission to try to change that. We were sharing it. You could say that was the same thing. I think they handled it, they did it in remarkably good taste and probably saved a lot of lives, the same thing with Amy Robach. I think it’s a teachable moment.

Morales: These are people who you become intimately connected with. Viewers would be wondering why Robin is not there…the same thing with Amy. Viewers want to know what is going on in your life, and when I was pregnant and having babies, they’d say, ‘I’m pregnant and having babies as well, at the same you are.’ People bonded when I was pregnant and they are doing it now with Savannah.

Roker: They celebrate with us. They mourn with us. I’ve lost both parents on the show. Matt lost his dad. It’s just one of those natural sorts of things. I don’t think anybody would hold it against you. We are all aging. We all have aging parents. The morning is probably the place where life happens…It’s a different beast.

Variety: What do you think the future is of the morning show? Can it hold its own as more viewers tap digital outlets to get their news and information?

Morales: You worry about how is digital reshaping and changing the landscape and are we losing some viewers to people are only getting their news online? The morning shows, though, are part of their routine…It’s hard to disconnect.

Roker: We reassure you that the world didn’t go to hell in a handbag while you slept, and kind of prep you for your day ahead. Our mission is different, than say Brian [Williams]’s, who is like here is a quick recap of what happened during your day. We are prepping you for the day….We are giving you some talkable points, some trending stuff. And even in this age of social media, I think what always surprises me is and I almost sound like Paul Lynde here, I’m always kind of surprised when a young person comes and says, I watch you every morning.’ I’m like, ‘Wait you’re on your phone. How can you be watching me?’ But as these millennials start becoming more responsible, they are patterning what they see their parents do. I think that’s the really exciting thing about it.

Morales: We are cool again.

Roker: I’ve got a teenager. I can guarantee you, I’m not that cool.

Variety: Do you think the morning show has more power than, say, a syndicated program or some repeats in a digital age?

Roker: These moments that happen with us, they aren’t canned… People see this and they push it out to their friends and their family, and they take on a life of their own. What I always find interesting about new media, is that the stuff that is usually the most popular on new media is the stuff you see on old media.

Morales: We have become very interactive. We ask people to weigh in on stories and segments. People do feel there is more of that two-way connection going on, that we want to know how our viewers feel and what they are thinking..You want to open that floor up, to let everyone sort of weigh in and that does create an opportunity.

Roker: I know we’re doing something right, because two or three months later, we’ll see it on “GMA.” We have our “Orange Room,” and oh my gosh, look at that, they’ve got a “Social Square!” Why didn’t we think of that? Oh, wait a minute. We did.

Variety: What do you think of GMA’s decision to hire Michael Strahan?

Morales: He’s super popular and he’s already doing morning television.

Roker: He’s a natural fit. Look, the fact of the matter is at the end of the day, we weren’t on our game. It’s not the worst thing in the world – it wasn’t the greatest thing that happened here, but it’s not the worst thing in the world to get a kick in the slats. Because sometimes you need that to say, ‘You know what, we need to rethink this and go back to where we were, to start from scratch.’ Sometimes, you do it on your own and sometimes you are forced to do it, The real test is how do you respond. I think from management and from our family on air and our producers and our camera crew, everybody dug in. No one said, “This is it, Game over.” We just worked that much harder.

Variety: You say things went adrift. To your mind, what happened?

Morales: I think we kind of forgot where we were for a time. We are a news program and I think there was a softening of that. We were doing a lot of stories that maybe none of us even cared a lot about. You want your anchors and people around you to be passionate about the stories they are doing, and we want to be passionate about it as well. We lost our way for a while. We lost our edge and now we are back. The first 20 minutes of the show? You know what is going on in the world.

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