Lifetime Scrapped Plans for Morning-News Movie That Put Spotlight on ‘Today’

Good Morning America vs Today Show
Courtesy oa ABC/NBC

The Lifetime movie that was supposed to cast a jaundiced eye on the war between the nation’s most-watched morning-news programs will not see the light of day at the cable network.

Lifetime generated headlines when it announced its intention to develop a TV movie based on CNN media reporter Brian Stelter’s 2013 tome “Top of the Morning.” The book took readers behind the scenes of NBC’s “Today” show in 2012 as it suffered amid ratings declines and the ouster of then co-anchor Ann Curry, all while it grappled with losing the morning TV crown to ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Some pundits even offered their takes on which actors should play each of the morning personalities involved in the a.m. drama.

But Lifetime, part of A+E Networks, a joint venture of Disney and Hearst, let its option on the project lapse several months ago, according to three people familiar with the situation. Indeed, said one of these people, the project has been out of development for about a year, leaving in question whether the general public will ever see a ripped-from-the-headlines TV movie with actors playing such key figures as Matt Lauer, Curry, Al Roker and Robin Roberts, or any of the executives who work with them behind the scenes.

Variety has reviewed an early draft for the script for the movie titled “Morning Wars,” written by Julie Rottenberg and Elisa Zuritsky, Emmy-nominated TV vets whose credits include “Sex and the City” and “Smash.” At present the pair are showrunners of Bravo’s “Odd Mom Out.”

There are numerous theories as to why the movie stalled at Lifetime. Might ABC, which is tied to Lifetime by its corporate parent, have gotten cold feet over a program that takes aim at its competitor while “GMA” and resurgent “Today” are locked in a daily dogfight for first place? Could Hollywood agents have fretted over the prospect of having their clients portray such big TV names as NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke?

The script is crammed with appearances by some of the industry’s most powerful executives and news personalities, and contains some eyebrow-raising devices to advance the plot.

The cast of characters in the 2014 draft includes Jeff Zucker, the one-time NBCUniversal CEO who now runs CNN; Steve Capus, the former NBC News president who is now a senior executive at CBS News; and Jim Bell, the former “Today” executive producer who now guides NBCU’s Olympics coverage. Katie Couric is spotted watching Curry’s “Today” farewell from her kitchen. Bryant Gumbel plays a round of golf with Lauer. Ben Sherwood, the Disney/ABC TV Group president who supervised ABC News when “Good Morning America” surged past “Today” in the ratings, makes a brief appearance, as does the on-air “GMA” staff. Megan Kopf Stackhouse, “Today’s” veteran publicist, gets several lines.

As in the book, the bulk of the drama focuses on “Today” anchor Lauer and his relationship with Curry. Lauer is billed in the stage directions as “cool as a cucumber” and often depicted ordering coffee or espresso. Curry’s chief flaw, as expressed in the script by Bell, is: “She has one setting: Earnest.”

“Morning Wars” opens with a scene of a booker at “Good Morning America” stealing a guest from “Today,” forcing the latter show’s staff  to scramble to find a new candidate to fill an important on-air slot. That is one of the few actual skirmishes between the two programs to surface on screen, though characters do make reference to “GMA’s” ratings gain as the drama progresses.

Viewers craving an insider’s take on the events that made for tabloid headlines would no doubt have been thrilled to watch a scene in which ABC’s Sherwood courts Lauer to come to the Disney network: “Bottom line is, if you come to us you can have your pick: Do it all…you can do a goddamned animated musical, if that strikes your fancy. You name it. And name your price tag, too. Then double it. But you didn’t hear that from me.” They might also have been intrigued to watch Hoda Kotb’s “eyes bulge out of her head” when she hears she’s slated to go on NBC for Curry after word surfaces that the latter has been ousted from the program.

And while this movie is focused on TV shows that fight to dominate the morning, some curious scenes take place at night. Lauer and his spouse are shown grappling with “Today” issues before turning in, and Bell requests a massage from his wife to help ease the stress of running the program. Curry and her husband also ponder trouble at the show before getting some shut-eye. Even “Today” weatherman Roker gets a boudoir scene (checking email on his smartphone before heading out for the day).

Whether the project will be shopped to other networks remains guesswork. But it’s a safe bet the “Morning Wars” script could be a hot property among those who toil in a.m. TV.