NBC News paired Jenna Bush Hager with Hoda Kotb nearly a year ago in the fourth hour of its venerable “Today” morning franchise. And yet, the duo feels like their show is only now just about to launch.
After taking time off for individual maternity leaves last year, Kotb and Hager hadn’t really spent much time anchoring the program together. Now they are about to make up for lost time.
Starting in February, Kotb and Hager will do the show in front of a live, in-studio audience twice a week. They will make use of Studio 6A, the facility that once housed David Letterman’s “Late Night” and Megyn Kelly’s “Megyn Kelly Today,” and is now being used for live-audience programs on Fridays with MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes. The live shows will be called “Hoda & Jenna & Friends.”
“The ladies having an audience will make them better at what they do,” says Joanne LaMarca, executive producer of the slot known among staffers as “The Happy Hour,” in a recent interview. “There’s a certain energy when you perform on stage, when you have people react to what you are doing.” Having a live audience will allow for new interactive segments that involve games or instant reactions. “I think that the audience is really going to change things up and I can’t wait for Hoda and Jenna to get to meet the best friends they don’t know they have.”
Kotb took maternity leave soon after Hager joined the program on a full-time basis last spring, and Hager then departed in August for similar reasons. Kotb returned to “Today” in September and Hager in November. Some of NBC’s plans for the program, which had been hosted by Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford for more than a decade, had to be put on hold.
Executives have reason to try and boost the duo. Since Kotb and Hager reunited on air in November, viewership for their hour has surged. According to Nielsen, the fourth hour of “Today” has seen viewers in the key demographic of people between 25 and 54 rise 14% and overall audience hike 11% since November 11 of last year.
In a tiny makeup room above “Today’s” Studio 1A that often serves as a makeshift planning hub for producers and anchors, Kotb and Hager were recently trying to work out the opening moments of a new broadcast – and explain how their chemistry has developed.
The fourth hour of “Today” had often been defined by Gifford’s knack for injecting zaniness into the proceedings, but Kotb and Bush see an opportunity to sound new tones. “We want to make it light and make it fun, but there’s a lot of heart and soul on the table every day, and a lot of vulnerability,” Kotb says while holding forth in one of the room’s makeup chairs.
There is still wine on their table during every broadcast – a nod to Gifford – but the two confess they have been doing less day drinking on air. “We both have little kids and we have other jobs, so it would be hard,” says Hager, who – as the daughter of President George W. Bush and granddaughter of President George H.W. Bush – has been in the public eye for decades, including some college years when she developed a reputation for partying. “I’m sorry I brought back the soberness. Who would ever have thought? I’m sorry I made it more sober. Back in the day, nobody would have ever thought that would be the case, but it’s true.”
But Kotb and Hager are eager to show viewers how their friendship is deepening as they spend more time together on screen. Neither is a stranger to the other. Hager has been with NBC News for a decade on “Today,” developing a reputation for trying fun things like auditioning for a Broadway play or accompanying former “Today” newsreader Natalie Morales to hang off a cliff in Rio or ride on a roller coaster. But she says she’s also an “introvert” who is eager to promote reading, and holds a “Read With Jenna” book club on the program.
The live audience and new studio represent just the latest in an ongoing series of tweaks NBC News executives have made to “Today,” which includes the show’s flagship 7 a.m. broadcast as well as several other daytime hours. The show’s 9 a.m. edition has been transformed twice in recent years – once for Megyn Kelly, and again for the program that replaced her, led by Craig Melvin, Sheinelle Jones, Al Roker and Dylan Dreyer. The Sunday broadcast, anchored by Willie Geist, has been tweaked to compete more directly with “CBS Sunday Morning.” NBC News more recently added White House correspondent Kristen Welker to the Saturday broadcast of “Today” – which she co-anchors with another D.C. operative, Peter Alexander.
Viewers at 10 a.m. are looking for something to which they can belong, suggests LaMarca. “If you are home at 10, you are most likely not working. Your kids are most likely out at school or out of the house,” she says. These viewers “just want to belong to a family, a friendship, a circle of girls.”
The producer says she doesn’t look at what the show’s daytime competitors are doing, and instead places close emphasis on how fans react to what they see each day on social media. She believes more “Hoda and Jenna” fans are calling up clips of the program at times of their own choosing, which means the show is vying with more than just the usual coterie of talk shows in late morning or early afternoon.
“Hoda and Jenna come from two different walks of life “but they are the friend you never thought you’d be friends with when you were 15, but when you are adults, you have so much more in common,” explains LaMarca, who supervised the fourth hour when Gifford was on, and then took time off before returning.
Hager recalls attending a good friend’s wedding in San Antonio a few years ago when she got a call from Kotb: Gifford wasn’t going to be in, and would Hager fill in for the day? Since that time, Hager has worked as a substitute at least 100 times, and, says Kotb, there has been little doubt that her role would expand once Gifford decided to step away. “You know when you know when there’s nobody else for the show.”