NBCUniversal wants to add an interesting new story to Jenna Bush Hager’s “Today” book club.
For nearly four years, the co-host of the 10 a.m. hour of “Today” has chosen a book each month for members of her “Read with Jenna” club to peruse and discuss. The selections typically focus on new authors and writers from diverse backgrounds who may not get the spotlight awarded to better-known contemporaries. Now, as part of a “first-look” production deal with Universal Studio Group, Bush Hager will have an opportunity to expand the stories she finds to other media. The pact was brokered by United Talent Agency, which represents Bush Hager.
“We just realized there is such an opportunity to make sure we are doing the best we can to highlight these authors and make sure their books live in other areas,” Bush Hager told Variety. Thirty of her selections have made the New York Times’ best-seller list, and, she says, “all of them have been optioned” for consideration for other media projects. She sees a chance “to take the lives of these books even further” as demand spikes for stories that could be made into series or films for TV, theaters or streaming-video sites.
Among the books Bush Hager has championed in recent months: “Black Cake,” a debut novel by Charmaine Wilkerson about a brother and sister coming to terms with the legacy of their family who are Carribbean immigrants; “Beautiful Country,” by Qian Julie Wang, a memoir about navigating a move to the United States as a seven-year-old; and “Hell of a Book,” by Jason Mott, a novel that examines racism in America from the perspective of very different characters.
Others have harnessed a growing interest in inspirational stories to great effect. Reese Witherspoon has focused on telling stories with women at their center for a book club of her own and her Hello Sunshine production company. Its projects have included a Hulu series based on the Celeste Ng novel “Little Fires Everywhere,” and a series for HBO based on the Liane Moriarity book “Big Little Lies.” A company run by former Disney executives Tom Stagg and Kevin Mayer and backed by Blackstone Group agreed to buy Hello Sunshine for a sum reported to be around $900 million.
Universal sees a chance to work with someone with a knack for unearthing interesting stories at a time when all media companies are trying to lure new streaming subscribers with a good yarn. “As an author and avid bibliophile, Jenna is uniquely tapped into the stories that resonate most with people and influence our culture,” says Pearlene Igbokwe, chairman of Universal Studio Group, in a statement provided via text. “Her literary passion is infectious, and we are excited to begin this new partnership.”
There are no expectations at present for a certain number of projects, says Bush Hager, noting that “I think it will happen really organically, in the way that building this book club has.” She is close to naming an executive “from the film and TV worlds” who “can really help create a company that stands by these missions” of finding new authors from diverse backgrounds.
Bush Hager will keep her duties as co-host of the 10 a.m. hour of “Today” alongside Hoda Kotb, and will continue to contribute to other “Today” programming. Other TV-news personnel have launched production units in the recent past, including Al Roker at NBC News and Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos at ABC News. Bush Hager’s book club “represents a new way for the ‘Today’ audience to connect,” says Noah Oppenheim, president of NBC News, in an interview, “They are coming to us for news and information, but they are also gathering around these incredible works of literature that Jenna is selecting.”
The host says she read 100 books last year in a bid to find her choices, and suggests her interest is a nod to members of her family. Her mother, former First Lady Laura Bush, got her master’s degree in library science at the University of Texas at Austin, and worked as a librarian. Her grandmother, former First Lady Barbara Bush, was “an avid reader,” says Bush Hager, and was also a staunch literacy advocate.
Yet her book club also makes her think of Jenna Welch, her grandmother on her maternal side, for whom she is named. “For different reasons, she never graduated from college formally, and did not get to travel like my other grandmother did,” says Bush Hager. “She read to open the world to herself, to got o all the places she wouldn’t be able to go to.”
Her expanded efforts won’t take Bush Hager away from “Today.” But they will add to her duties. “I’ll continue to be on the show every day, doing the same thing,” says Bush Hager. “This will just be an expansion of my work. I will work a little harder after the show.”