Libby Leist’s path to the top of the first two hours of NBC’s “Today” started in Washington, D.C.
Leist joined NBC News’ Washington bureau as a desk assistant in 2001, and soon rose through the ranks to become a senior producer for Capitol Hill coverage and a senior producer for “Today” in Washington, D.C. Her assignments would have her working with people like Andrea Mitchell and Savannah Guthrie.
That relationship with Guthrie, now a co-anchor on “Today,” would serve her well. While other women have supervised NBC’s A.M. franchise – Alexandra Wallace, a former NBC News senior vice president, once had responsibility for the program’s many hours – no female staffer has run the show’s first two hours, which are the most lucrative, most watched and most scrutinized. The first two hours of “Today” are said to bring in around $500 million in advertising revenue each year, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending.
Leist replaces Don Nash, a veteran hand at “Today” who has supervised the program since 2012. She has been senior producer of the 7 a.m. hour of “Today” for the past five years.
In recent months, producers have tinkered with that time period, making it newsier and cutting away some of the traditional morning-show trappings. “Today” never took on a new newsreader once Natalie Morales left in 2016, and, these days, tries to put more of a spotlight on its co-anchor duo and the headlines.
Leist has longstanding ties to political coverage, and has led “Today” coverage of candidate town halls as well as a 2016 broadcast from inside the White House. She has also worked as Mitchell’s State Department producer, a role that brings with it lots of travel requirements.
Leist joins “Today” while it is enjoying new momentum – and recovering from a big shock. Even though it has lost viewers in recent years, the program has long trumped its main rival, ABC’s “Good Morning America,” among viewers between 25 and 54 – the demographic most coveted by advertisers, and has also captured the most viewers overall in each of the past seven weeks.
Keeping that edge over its competitor is an important task. “Today” is likely to benefit in coming weeks as well, when NBCUniversal’s mammoth, multi-network coverage of the Winter Olympics from PyeongChang, South Korea, is expected to lure larger audiences to its programming.
The show is also finding its way after the ouster of Matt Lauer, a co-anchor who had been with the show for more than two decades, and was often viewed as the one who drew viewers to the screen. Recent ratings suggest that may not be so, and Leist’s new role of watching over Guthrie and co-anchor Hoda Kotb, means the NBC morning program, which typically appeals to more women that it does men, has women in three of its most important roles.
Leist’s new mission will be to show that “Today” can prevail in days to come.