Remember going to crowded outdoor concerts? Hoda Kotb does.
One of the perks of being an anchor on NBC’s venerable “Today” morning show is getting to see Jason Mraz or Aerosmith belt one out in the middle of New York’s Rockefeller Plaza, with dozens of fans of the show surrounding the stage. That’s just one of many core elements of “Today” that have been scuttled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Before all this happened, Larry David and Senator Bernie Sanders could visit the show in person and make fun of their similar looks. Passers-by could peer in the windows of Studio 1A, the show’s longtime home, as Kotb and co-anchor Savannah Guthrie deliver each day’s broadcast.
Kotb is eager to see all of it return.
“We want people who have faces in the glass. We want to wave to people who make signs that say, ‘Hey, Mom, I waited my whole life to come on the Today Show,” says Kotb during a interview Tuesday via Zoom as she took a short break between her duties on the show’s first two hours and her job co-anchoring its fourth with Jenna Bush Hager. “The minute we can get outside and see people and have them enjoy music together? I dream about that day.”
A year ago, Guthrie and Kotb were still sitting within inches of each other on set, relaying news on March 11, 2020, of a containment area set up around New Rochelle, NY, and of legal proceedings against disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. They haven’t been that close to each other on set in months, staying socially distanced in the studio or, at some moments, much further. Guthrie at times anchored from home to ensure she’d be close to her children. Many of the industry’s best-known morning-news anchors have logged at least some time from home. Kotb has come to the studio on every day she has worked.
That disruption has changed the feel of the show. “I’m a team person, I used to play high-school basketball, and there’s a team aspect to this. I like the high fives,” says Kotb. The coronavirus protocols “alter the chemistry of the place.”
Now anchors and producers are working toward a time when “Today” returns to a pre-pandemic norm. As vaccines get distributed and health regulations lift, there is a sense at the show that many of its standbys — familiar elements that people have made part of years-old morning routines — will return. “We are in conversations with everybody we need to be in conversations with – with NBC, with local officials and state health officials – about how do we re-emerge. How do we re-emerge into our studio with a full crew? How do we re-emerge on to the Plaza with people there? They are the lifeblood of our show. It is an iconic part of our broadcast. It’s an iconic part of New York – people standing in that Plaza, cheering us on, waving to friends at home,” says Tom Mazzarelli, executive producer of the first three hours of “Today,” in an interview. “We can’t wait to get back to that and as soon as we are allowed to, as soon as we feel comfortable, we are going to do that. We will mark it and it will be a big occasion.”
Planning at “Today” echoes conversations that must take place at many of TV’s most familiar programs as they keep pace with the times and try to pivot back to regular production. As vaccinations rise, so too does the chance that Stephen Colbert will return to the main stage at the Ed Sullivan Theater for CBS’ “The Late Show” and that cast members of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” won’t have to wear masks when they say goodnight from Studio 8H at the end of each broadcast. Celebrities and politicians might be able to visit in person, rather than via Zoom or FaceTime. Guthrie and Lester Holt will Thursday night at 10 p.m. take one step toward that new era with a special primetime broadcast live from the Lincoln Memorial that examines how American returns to some level of normalcy.
The last 12 months at “Today” have been fraught with logistical complexities — and emotional ones as well.
Morning news is one of TV’s toughest jobs. Anchors and producers change their natural sleep cycles to deliver critical information to early risers as part of a business that is one of the most profitable and heavily scrutinized in TV and snares millions of dollars in advertising each year. The intense competition between “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning America” and the full A.M. crowd continues, despite the strange times. “Today” last week topped “GMA” in overall viewers, a category the ABC program typically dominates (“Today” typically commands the demographic most coveted by advertisers, people between 25 and 54). And “CBS This Morning,” typically the third-place program on broadcast, topped both the NBC and ABC programs Monday after snaring Oprah Winfrey following her interview this past weekend with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry.
Guthrie and Kotb felt an even greater mission as the coronavirus forced massive societal transformation.
The duo found themselves hoping to reassure their audience. “If there is one thing in your life that isn’t changing, it’ s going to be these ladies, showing up with their bad hair we did ourselves and makeup that’s half off because we don’t know how to do it. But by gosh, we are going to be here,” Guthrie recounts via Zoom from her dressing room Tuesday, a pink neon heart hanging on the wall behind her. “That really was our founding principle during this time.”
They had to do so as production shifted all around them. Staffers dispersed across the region to home basements and bedrooms to keep the show going. One critical employee, Jazmin Rose, an overnight researcher, was working out of a home in California. “All of the information flows through that person,” says Mazzarelli. “We used to joke, ‘We hope Jazmin’s internet is solid.” Meanwhile, broadband hiccups began to percolate as “Today” moved into its second hour, with producers discovering their digital systems were stretched as more people woke up to start their day and logged on to get email, video and more.
“He has nightmares every night,” says Guthrie of the producer. “He was alone in a control room for the better part of this, working with people on WebEx or Skype or crappy internet, and we’d be in the middle of a big interview and it just goes down. That’s not great for those of us on air and it’s really not great when he suddenly has eight minutes to fill and no commercial to go to and has to figure it all out.”
Some on-air pauses were even more unexpected. Kotb was interviewing New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees last March about charitable giving and suddenly got emotional on set after Brees wished her well. She had no one on set to turn to, because Guthrie was anchoring remotely. So the pair took a pause on camera, and Guthrie reassured her over the ether –and on screen. “It spoke to how so many people were feeling,” says Guthrie. The incident reemphasized a vow the two anchors have to “protect each other,” says Kotb, as they continue with the show.
Amid a cascade of production changes, the anchors found their job growing more intense. They still had to guide viewers through the 2020 election as well as get them news about their health and safety. The program landed interviews with everyone from Tom Hanks – whose exposure to coronavirus early in the pandemic created a major news story – to former Vice President Mike Pence and newly elected Vice President Kamala Harris. Kotb and Guthrie also anchored primetime special reports devoted to the pandemic while keeping up duties on “Today.”
Despite the chaos, Guthrie has had what colleagues and even rivals acknowledge has been a career-defining year. Her October town hall with former President Trump took place under a microscope, with critics pressing NBC to drop the event after Trump and President Biden couldn’t come to terms for a second presidential debate and Biden unveiled a similar event on the same night on ABC. But she managed to hold Trump to account in a way few journalists have, and in doing so, salvaged NBC’s effort.
“Savannah has worked her tuchus off during this time and you can see it in the big interviews she has gotten,” says Kotb. “She has done everything with grace in the middle of this entire moment we are all in, and she hasn’t missed a beat. Most people miss a beat.”
After all that, even the most pedestrian of morning segments sounds appetizing – even cooking demonstrations. “I want food back on the Plaza,” says Guthrie. “We all want that show back, and it’s coming.”Some FaceTime interviews may remain if they help “Today” deliver critical news to viewers, but the hosts really want everyone to come back to the studio. “Anything left over from Covid that expands what we do is a keeper,” adds Guthrie. “Anything that narrows it and takes away the heart and soul of it that can go away with the virus. Bye-bye.”