Willie Geist, who maintains one of the more demanding schedules in modern TV news, acknowledged Monday what a lot of folks at NBC News already know: “I’ve been wearing a lot of hats lately,” he said, while announcing he would step down from his role as co-host of the 9 a.m. hour of “Today.”
Now there is growing speculation about whether the anchor will continue to don the rest of his haberdashery for NBCUniversal.
The company and Geist have entered into what two people familiar with the situation call final-stage negotiations to renew his contract, which is believed to expire by the end of the year. The hope at NBCU is that these discussions will end soon, one of these people said, with Geist sticking with his current employer. Even so, representatives for Geist have in recent months explored new possibilities at rival outlets including ABC News and CBS News, according to people familiar with the situation, and perhaps even CNN.
The Geist talks shine a light on the emphasis the broadcast networks continue to place on their morning programming, where a switch in the ratings can mean a gain or loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars. ABC’s “Good Morning America” continues to lure the most viewers overall among TV networks, but that distinction is moot. NBC’s “Today,” after losing ground to its ABC rival, has regained the lead among the type of viewers that matter most: people between the ages of 25 and 54, which is what advertisers pay for when they sponsor news programs. Meanwhile, producers at both programs need to look in the rear-view mirror, At CBS, “CBS This Morning” has notched steady audience gains, even as “GMA” viewership” has shown noticeable signs of erosion.
NBCU wants Geist to stay, according to the people familiar with the discussions. He is a nearly ubiquitous presence on the company’s morning-news operations. He was recently made the host of a retooled version of Sunday’s “Today” that offers more in-depth reporting and analysis than the weekday program, and might be considered a rival to CBS’ “Sunday Morning.” His name is part of the revamped show’s title — a perk not accorded to many, even main “Today” anchors Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie. And Geist has been a regular contributor to “Morning Joe” on MSNBC since that show launched in 2007.
If Geist were to renew, some of these people said, he would continue contributing reports to the flagship hours of “Today,” between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., and also maintain a presence as the primary – though not the only – fill-in for Matt Lauer when the “Today” host is off-duty or on assignment. Those duties could potentially groom Geist for bigger jobs at the company in the future.
Geist’s departure from the third hour of “Today” is said to be his own decision, according to people familiar with the matter, and reflects both his desire to focus on his Sunday show as well as the networks’ growing scrutiny of their morning lineups beyond the key hours of 7 a.m. to 9 a.m.
ABC is moving Michael Strahan full time to “GMA” and is in the midst of seeking a partner for Kelly Ripa at the syndicated stalwart “Live with Kelly.” NBC is retooling the 9 a.m. hour of “Today,” lending it a breezier tone with the recent addition of Billy Bush. In the wake of that decision, Natalie Morales, a “Today” veteran who had a presence across the franchise’s first three hours, moved to the West Coast to anchor “Access Hollywood” and continue as a “Today” contributor.
Geist has been with NBCU since 2005, when he joined MSNBC as a senior producer. He had previously worked in sports television, doing stints for Fox Sports Net and the now defunct CNN/Sports Illustrated cable network. Since arriving at NBCU, his presence has grown. He has anchored some of the company’s coverage of the London Olympics; contributed to programs like “Rock Center” and “NBC Nightly News”; and started his own show, “Way Too Early” on MSNBC in 2009.
Geist comes from a long TV-news tradition. His father is Bill Geist, a longtime presence on “CBS Sunday Morning.” If the younger Geist does stay at NBC, he is likely to prove instrumental in NBC’s efforts to woo viewers from the program his father calls home.