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Accept No Substitutes: NBC’s ‘Today’ Team Works on a Real Morning Show

After an era of tumult, NBC’s “Today” is looking out for tomorrow.

The anchors acknowledge that a series of personnel changes at its various hours on NBC have brought intense scrutiny to the program, but they also point out that the show, a morning-TV original, has a connection with different generations of viewers that is hard to cut. And there’s a  lot of work being done behind the scenes at the program’s Studio 1A to keep it relevant for future audiences.

Reporters for Sirius XM Radio rove backstage, eager to give that service’s channel devoted to “Today” programming behind-the-scenes tidbits. Producers are devoted to the franchise’s flagship two hours, but so too are they working on e-commerce ventures, or considering how to monetize the program’s massive archive of segments.

As part of Variety’s look at how morning shows are evolving in challenging era for TV, “Today” anchors Savannah Guthrie, Hoda Kotb, Craig Melvin. Al Roker and Carson Daly gathered one recent morning in the show’s green room to talk about the series’ past and future, and how they are navigating a tricky time for journalism. Their remarks have been edited for length and clarity.

Variety: Savannah, a lot of people would like to know about your eye [in December, Guthrie took several days off after suffering an eye injury when her young son pushed a toy near her face] and your recovery.

Savannah Guthrie: It’s on the mend. We have all lived through the eye saga. It’s getting better. I had a surgery. The doctors are really happy with how it worked out. So now I’m just trying to get my vision back to where it was, and I think ultimately, it will be right back to where it was. I’m always clumsy, but I have a little depth perception problem, so all of my colleagues are making sure I don’t fall.

Hoda Kotb:  Savannah has been studying because she’s had a lot of big interviews, and reading ain’t the easiest thing…To her credit, Savannah doesn’t come in and bitch and complain about it. She just does her thing. It’s not like she walks in and…’ I can’t really see anything. Good luck with the show!’

Variety: For a few weeks around the end of the year, you were able beat your main rival in both of the ratings categories networks monitor, But at the same time, all three network morning shows have been losing viewers for the past few seasons. Should you be optimistic or pessimistic?

Guthrie: There’s reason for optimism. People are tuning in to the ‘Today’ show and we have four hours and I’m optimistic in general because the ‘Today’ show has really met the moment in terms of expanding our reach. It’s not just the four hours any more. It’s digital, it’s cable. All of us are doing more than ever in more spaces than ever. The fact that TV viewership is going down in general is not lost on any of us. It’s a trend that has been going on as long as I can remember. The whole time all of us have been in broadcasting there are more choices, so naturally those numbers will fall, but I feel we are very well positioned  to meet that next generation and to meet people where they are finding their news.

Kotb: The world is changing and you’ve got to ride it. We all have multiple shows. Carson probably has the most jobs of all but we all try to do something more. We all have our own digital shows. Some of us do radio. Craig has MSNBC. Carson has ‘The Voice.’ Al has a whole Al Roker empire. I think the way the world is going now, you can’t go in and do two hours, because people are getting their news everywhere, so you need to be there in all those different spots.

Craig Melvin: It also helps us scratch lots of itches as well. We can do the news. We can go across the street and do politics for an hour.

Carson Daly: I think I’m the only one here who straddles both NBC Entertainment and NBC News. The erosion of viewership is something we have been fighting for a long time…’The Voice’ has seen a drop off and what it led us to do is find other ways to meet your audience.

Variety:  Your cable news rivals have gained viewers by drilling down deep on politics and often with taking a tougher tone. Does ‘Today’ need to compete with that?

Kotb: I was walking home the other day, and this woman comes up to me and says, ‘I love watching you guys in the morning. You make me feel safe.’ That stuck with me. I said, ‘Oh, I hadn’t thought about it that way.’ That does speak to tone…I think some people are trying to sell the news. They want to scare you. But we are delivering the news and we are saying it in a way you would tell a friend. We are not saying, ‘Don’t cross the street because a car might blind side you.’ We might say ‘Look, if you stand on the edge of the street, it probably won’t happen, but there was one person it happened to.’ I feel like our delivery is not with a sledgehammer, and I feel like we do it in a way that is balanced. We don’t try to scare people.

Guthrie: I think we work really hard on the issue of tone. These are serious times we are living in, and it’s such an unusual show across four hours. You can start interviewing the Vice President of the United States, and you can end with Oprah on a beach. That can happen. That does happen all the time. That’s about really measuring what the audience expects, and I think we try to approach the news with substance and sophistication and I don’t think we are flashy.

Melvin: I think one reason the show has resonated with people for 65 plus years now is the show, I think, is an accurate reflection of who we are as people. No one spends all day talking food or all day talking politics, or all day talking music, but we spend a few minutes on politics. We talk sports.

Daly: We are often put in a place to come out of a story that’s tragic and have to switch gears, and that’s a really hard thing to do.

Variety: With a new generation of viewers plowing through YouTube and Vice News and user-generated video, and seeing raw footage via social, do you think you have freedom to be less formal, more unvarnished and less polished on the show?

Guthrie: I think it is happening. I love pushing the envelope.

Kotb: I remember doing news reading a long time ago, and everything was to the script and that’s what you did. Even the chatter in between was kind of discussed before. And now it doesn’t feel that way at all. Often, when we are going into the opening of the show, we chatter and move on – let’s just see how we feel in the moment.

Guthrie: Even the cheesy ad -ibs – you can’t get away with that any more on this show. Don’t come in with your generic bumper sticker or just don’t say anything.

Melvin: Or just shut up.

Variety: What do you think viewers don’t want to see in the morning?

Guthrie: Us naked.

Daly: I think you need to eat. You are saying things you would not normally say.

Guthrie: He isn’t going to put that in.

[Reporter gestures that the line will stand]

Daly: There’s the headline.

Kotb: I mean, it is a breakfast show. We are kind of careful about things that might be upsetting, visually upsetting, and we give viewers a warning if we feel like it’s necessary. I just think we are careful.

Daly: I just think people in this climate, in this era, I just think people can spot a fake a mile away.

Variety: This program has been under intense observation for years. Many of you have worked through the attention paid to Ann Curry’s departure, Billy Bush’s arrival, the experiment with Megyn Kelly and Matt Lauer’s departure and the Ronan Farrow aftermath. Are you concerned that all of this scrutiny and attention obscures the work you do here every day?

Gutrhie: Obviously, this show has been through a lot.

Kotb: And it’s bigger than us. It’s bigger than them. It’s bigger than everybody. This thing has been around for years and I think if anyone thought this show was either made or would fall apart based on them, they were mistaken and it will be the same for all of us whenever we go by whatever means we go. I think the show is bigger than the sum of its parts. Sure, we are a family. Families have some dysfunction. We are still us. You see us kind of unvarnished.

Guthrie: All the shows have their ups and downs, and I think the ‘Today’ show gets a lot of scrutiny, but I always like to say I hope that’s the price of success. I hope that’s because people think this show still matters.

Al Roker: There were always transitions, and there will always be transitions.

Guthrie:  This show has often been compared to a family, for better or for worse, but I’m happy to take that. We are a family. Families go through ups and downs, and usually in good families – and this is a good family – you get closer. You get stronger. And the bond we have reflects that. We have been through a lot of stuff together.

Variety: Do you think some of these things have gotten in the way of how people perceive this show?

Kotb: I don’t think so. I don’t think so. When Savannah and I started anchoring, when we were together for the first time, I went to a SoulCycle class and women started applauding when I walked in. I was like, I didn’t know what was happening, and they were like ‘Here’s to the women!’ It was a weird thing that happened, and I remember not being aware this might have been a kind of cultural moment for people and I think viewers might have seen it in different ways. Some people look and see a scar and some people look and see the healing.

Daly: You are not giving yourself enough credit. Through any scrutiny or any hiring or any talent issue at this place, when you stepped into that chair, everyone left to right was like ‘Here’s the smartest move NBC News made in the history of this company.’

Variety: Have any of you watched this Apple ‘Morning Show’? Do you find it unnerving at all?

Daly: I’ve watched it.

Guthrie: I haven’t seen it yet

Melvin: I saw the first one.

Kotb: Yeah,  I saw the first one – and then I guess I thought that was good.

Daly: I watched it. I loved the acting, I loved Jennifer and Reese.

Guthrie: I haven’t seen it, but my husband has seen it. I don’t think we have any reason not to see it, but we have no lives. ‘Broadcast News” is the greatest show ever about news and I compare everything to ‘Broadcast News.’

Variety: ‘Today’ has pushed into digital video, satellite radio and e-commerce. If you had to predict the next frontier for the franchise, what would it be?

Melvin: What’s left?

Roker: Who really knows? That’s the best part.

 

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