After Months of Rebuilding, NBC’s ‘Today’ Has New Hope For Tomorrow (EXCLUSIVE)

today-show-white-house
Courtesy NBC News

Matt Lauer, Savannah Guthrie and Al Roker recently found themselves in a situation that might seem unusual: sharing cocktails and banter with a group of their fiercest competitors.

Worlds that normally stay very separate last week collided. The “Today” trio mingled in the same room with “Good Morning America” anchors Robin Roberts and Lara Spencer, all part of a small gathering in Manhattan held to celebrate a new book on managing work and family written by Roker and his spouse, ABC News correspondent Deborah Roberts. James Goldston, the president of ABC News, and Deborah Turness, the president of NBC News, flanked Roker and Roberts and made happy toasts. Even Norah O’Donnell, one of the co-hosts of “CBS This Morning,” arrived on the scene. If executives from Apple and Microsoft were ever to put aside the business of outmaneuvering each other and decide instead to hang out, the setting might look very similar.

This week, the gloves are off again.

The staff behind NBC’s “Today” has performed logistical somersaults to broadcast the program live from Los Angeles Monday in the wake of the Golden Globes, and Tuesday from inside the White House on the morning of President Obama’s last State of the Union speech. Jenna Hager Bush, an NBC News correspondent who was once a member of a First Family, opened the front door of the White House in the program’s opening minutes as Lauer, Guthrie, Roker, Natalie Morales and Carson Daly ushered viewers from the manse’s front steps directly inside. Producers soon cut to scenes from a taped interview between Lauer and the nation’s Commander-in-Chief.

“It’s what we try to do every day,” said Lauer, holding forth from a Washington, D.C., hotel minutes after wrapping Tuesday’s broadcast. “You’ve got the behind-the-scenes of a tour of the White House on a very important day for the administration and the viewers get to see things that they’ve never seen before.” More often than not, the buzzy shoots feed into the 9 a.m. hour of “Today,” when Willie Geist and Tamron Hall are joined by Morales and Roker.

Lauer, Guthrie and their cohorts declined to say much about competitors, but the mere fact that they are touting “Today” in public is the clearest sign in months that NBC and producers are feeling more optimistic about the morning-show’s prospects. ABC’s “Good Morning America” remains the nation’s most-watched morning program – a position it swiped from “Today” in 2012 amid viewer backlash over the ouster of then-host Ann Curry – but “Today” has beat “GMA” steadily among people between 25 and 54, the audience most desired by advertisers.

“Today” producers and anchors have kept relatively mum on the show’s progress since the summer of 2014, when they told Variety the show, at the time well behind “GMA,” had reworked itself and was gearing up for new battle.

Now they are confirming what has largely been apparent to regular viewers. “Today” wants to stand out by owning big news events and will test bold ideas to do so. In recent weeks, “Today” has held “town halls” over the course of an hour with Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Lauer has snared exclusive interviews with Charlie Sheen, who revealed he was HIV-positive, and Joyce Mitchell, the prison seamstress who helped two inmates escape a correctional facility in upstate New York, resulting in the launch of an intense manhunt. In coming weeks, “Today” will head to Iowa to cover the looming caucus there.

“Our ratings have given us a little more confidence to try things that we might not have tried a few months ago,” like the town halls, said Don Nash, the show’s executive producer. “We can tell they are paying off, and it’s great to have that confidence back.” The show won more viewers between 25 and 54 for the fourth quarter than “GMA,” the first time it has done so since the third quarter of 2012. The on-air staff has gelled more definitively, said Roker. “There is a consistent feeling of ‘We just did a great job, and how are we going to make this better?’” he said. “That’s really something that has built on in the last year.”

Producers and anchors say they aren’t trying to nab the number-one ranking from “GMA.” They just want to put together a good program. “We are always looking to be better and to do better, no matter where we are in the morning wars,”said Morales.

Rivals aren’t backing away. At ABC, “Good Morning America” just sent news anchor Amy Robach to Iceland on a complicated shoot that gave viewers a hard-to-match look inside an ice sinkhole to help illustrate the perils of climate change. Sam Champion, the popular weather anchor who left “GMA” at the end of 2013, has returned to the program this week to fill in for meteorologist Ginger Zee. The show just launched a new streaming-video sneak peek that takes viewers behind the scenes before the 7 a.m. TV broadcast starts. At CBS, “CBS This Morning” continues to hit on hard news and has seen its ratings increase significantly in the past year. On Tuesday, the program offered unaired footage of David Bowie being interviewed by “60 Minutes.”

“Today” hasn’t remained as is in recent months. There has been new emphasis placed on scoring agenda-setting interviews for the show’s first hour. The”Orange Room,” a center where Carson Daly sifts through trendlets in social media, has moved out of the program’s first 30 minutes and been given more time after 8 a.m. And there have been cosmetic changes, too.  Some of the orange hues that colored the set have been banished in favor of a brighter tones. When “Today” opens on most mornings, it is with the duo of Lauer and Guthrie, rather than the entire ensemble, which had become the standard opening in recent years – a conceit widely seen as an effort to emulate the look of “GMA.” Now, “Today” can get right down to business.

“We are far from claiming victory,” said Noah Oppenheim, the NBC News senior vice president in charge of the program. “We are just putting on the best show we can and hoping to give the audience an informative and interesting program.”

Maintaining the current status – or building on it – will require a lot of work, much of it behind the scenes. For Tuesday’s White House program, “Today” required 13 cameras and a technical and production crew of almost 80 people. Securing access took months, said Guthrie, who worked contacts from her days covering the White House to help make the broadcast happen. Originally, the show had not planned on being at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on the morning of the State of the Union, she said, but she’s glad it worked out that way. “It added real urgency and momentousness to the day,” she added. Carson Daly had his hands full fielding questions from viewers sent via social media.

“Today” had wanted to try to broadcast the 9 a.m. hour from there as well, said Nash, but officials nixed the idea. Even so, Roker and Morales got to do stand-ups from the executive mansion for 15 minutes.

More is in store, the anchors vowed, particularly with parent company NBCUniversal’s coverage of the Rio Olympics coming later this year. “That’s going to be huge for us,” said Morales, along with reporting on the ongoing campaign for U.S. President.

Other stunts are in the works, too. After sending Al Roker through punishing events known as “Rokerthon” and “Rokerthon 2” that have him broadcast for hours on end or travel the country in the space of just a few days, producers are already contemplating “Rokerthon 3,” the weather anchor said. He has only one caveat: No space travel. Does moving the show to the ultimate heights require an out-of-orbit blast? That remains to be seen.

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  1. Richard M says:

    Al Roker is the only one keeping this morning show alive, again it says a lot about the integrity of NBC keeping Matt Lauer on after back stabbing Ann Curry.

  2. Richard M says:

    NBC please inform Matt Lauer to sit like a Man instead of his cross dresser position. For God sake man sit like one!!!. How can any Man worth their salt cross their legs like that unless they are a Woman. And by the way we have not forgotten what you did to your former co-worker and stabbed her in the back. Al Roker rocks, but the rest seem to bow down to the back stabber Matt Lauer. Disgusting .

  3. Mike says:

    With the exception of Al Roker they all suck and are a bunch of half wit phoneys!

  4. J says:

    I’ve had enough of Natalie Morales, on TODAY. Can’t stand her ad lib comments.
    (I do enjoy Jenna Bush Hager.)

    But – I’ve switched to watching CBS This Morning.

  5. Bonnie Ness says:

    I thought news programs were supposed to be “neutral “????
    The Today program has become one of personal opinions and all about Hollywood!!! Who wants to watch that??
    I will no longer watch it.

  6. I watched the Today Show faithfully for years and years. I thought my morning couldn’t start without it. I stopped watching the day they sacrificed Ann Curry to Matt Lauer’s monster-sized ego. From that day forward, they were no longer welcome in my home. I observed with delight their falling numbers after that. I now read about the callous treatment of their talent — in one day, out the next: Ann Curry, Brian Williams, Amy Robach, Jenna Wolfe, David Gregory. Now, add Erica Hill’s name to the list. Step right up ladies and gentlemen, let’s see who is next. I like to send a note from time to time simply to remind them that some of us will never forget — ever.

  7. Thomas Jernigan says:

    Why don’t you talk about the parties trying to stop people running for President. As long as you meet the requirements then the parties should keep quite. Just because they don’t like someone does not mean they should run them out. That should be illegal. Anyone can run. Again as long as the meet the requirements. The GOP should back off. It’s the people’s choice not there’s.

  8. Rose grinage says:

    Personally I think they need to do a complete makeover. get rid of Matt, Savannah and maybe even Natalie Morales. These people act like children. They have no style. matt has shown himself to be a liar and a fake. Savannah is just plain boring. I have even noticed that Natalie, Dylan and Sheinelle all seem to act like a bunch of teenage girls when they all get together. I only watched on weekends after they got rid of Ann Curry. I should have known that is how they behave. After all they got rid of JanePauley because of Bryan. maybe the people at Today need to start paying attention to the people who watched your show. It won’t be me , even on weekends anymore. And that’s a shame because I do like Willie Geist. Oh well, maybe his Dad will convince him to move to CBS …

  9. Barbara Orr says:

    Well, I’m through with the bad taste I have been getting the last few years from the new Today News in the early morning. I always turned to your channel in the morning and continued into my retirement. Now I almost cringed from the remarks made as the group start their morning “Talk”. The comments made are out of tune with my interest and appear fake. I find I just don’t like the group . Check out the comments made by Matt Lauer regarding Hilary Clinton and Madeline Albright’s in last week’s morning news segment. I would like to see a woman elected president in the US and really don’t need his personal feelings on the subject. I never thought it would happen but I’m watching another morning show.

  10. Sophia says:

    Lauer needs to go with savannah right behind him. After watching “Today” for many years I will be looking for other options after their handling of sarah palin on monday. Even if there was no agreement ahead of time why would they zero in on her personal Life!!!! And Al Roker’s face today during the Jeb Bush news was unforgiveable. I am not an Al Roker fan anyway. I think those tactics are for other biased news reporter programs. My idea of a good show is where the viewers have no clue of where the hosts personally stand on politics. Report the news un biased on all subjects! That’s what I will be looking for. If I want biased news I know where to go for it.

  11. Donna Walker says:

    I saw the segment on Sarah Palin on my computer today and that interview from Matt and Savannah was the worst. This is the reason a lot of my friends and myself don’t watch the today show anymore. I haven’t watched it since they put Savannah on as she is by far the worst I have ever seen. Can’t stand how she talks and her interviewing is so boring. The show went down hill after Meredith as it was her and Katie why I watched it everyday, not Matt at all. You should get rid of Matt and Savannah and start over as they are both terrible and brought the show down. I would like to watch the Today Show again but not until they are both gone. I talk to a lot of people and they say the same thing.

  12. Rusty says:

    If it wasn’t for Kathy Lee and Hoda (too real humanitarians) following the early morning portion it would be jus a bunch of fluff.

  13. Poopy Campo says:

    All of the comments I’ve seen here are essentially correct. Until NBC divests itself of the arrogant Matt Lauer, this show will always be a “downer”. Things were worse a number of years ago, but Lauer seriously believes he is something special. He isn’t. Samantha Guthrie comes across as one of the most plastic personae around. Natalie Morales has always been the shining light of “Today”, but NBC has never gotten this. I watched their Red Carpet work prior to the “Golden Globes”, and thought it was acceptable.

  14. Marc says:

    Brian- they definitely have their mojo back. But aren’t their rating still down from last year?

  15. Sophia says:

    As a long time viewer of TODAY, I’m thrilled to see Carsons presence continue to grow throughout the program. I wasn’t sure about his addition in the beginning as I was rooting for Willy to have an expanded role, but over the past year it’s become apparent that Carsons style seems to suit the future of the show quite well while Willy comes across slightly disingenuous and lacking range. It almost feels like Willy should have risen to prominence in the 60s vs 2016. Bottom line is Carson seems to be the future of today and if that’s not clear yet, I think it will be.

  16. Today will always be "Yesterday's Leftovers" says:

    Not a fan and never will be. Bryant Gumball was the beginning of the end…..

  17. Neville Ross says:

    The Today show wants to make itself better?

    1. Get rid of Kathie Lee & Hoda (especially after this embarrassing thing they did back in 2011).

    2. Learn how to do morning shows from canadaam.ctvnews.ca

    3. Do real news and not bullcaca.

  18. Dunstan says:

    I gave up on the Today show after what they did to Ann Curry; despicable behavior on a schoolyard, let alone a national morning show.

    GMA is a three ring circus and I can’t stomach Lara Spencer.

    CBS has the smartest morning news show. And no, I don’t work for any network.

  19. They have to downgrade Tamron Hall back to newsdesk or MSNBC, she’s such a headache, cackling at every little thing. Dylan Dreyer should be the future of the show, she excels every time she’s on. It’s time for Roker to move to an emeritus role a la Brokaw and come on for major weather occurrences, and let Dreyer in full time.

  20. Michael Anthony says:

    The headline makes it seem that Today is one of the wonders of the world.

    • Brian Steinberg says:

      Thanks for the note, Michael. It’s a reference to some of the troubles the show has suffered through in recent years

      • Read in between the lines, they are doing stunts like Rokerthon, live studio births, and White House appearences is an indicator that they are in bad shape and jumping the shark. Today show can preach this cumbia moments all they want the fact is that they any time a show resorts to stunts it indicates how bad the quality of the show has gone downhill.

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