The $25 million Today show host who is now less popular than George Stephanopoulos is primed to become the next host of Jeopardy!, where he would seek to replace one of the most popular game-show hosts of all time. "The beleaguered host of the Today show is at the top of the list to take over the brainy game show when [Alex] Trebek steps down, as expected, in 2016," reports The New York Post today. Fans of the show were less than pleased, because everybody seems to hate Matt Lauer right now — but it's far from a done deal.
Indeed, if Lauer can't get his viewers or staffers to like him on the Today show in the mornings, how is he supposed to step in on one of the most heavily syndicated shows on television, as America is sitting down to dinner, and replace a man who's been asking answers for three decades? Lauer's strange week began on Monday when The Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz offered an "exclusive" interview with Lauer, peppered with lines from NBC executives trying to make up from the ratings dive after the allegedly Lauer-orchestrated ouster of Ann Curry — "You're [Lauer] the best person who's ever done this" was the sentiment, even if that's far from what the ratings say.
If Kurtz's piece read like an unrestrained press release from a network desperate to take the heat off of its fading star, The New York Times's Brian Stelter followed on Thursday with a report from inside the Today show itself. Notwithstanding his Q score being shaved in half since Curry's arrival and dipping below that little guy over on ABC for the first time, Today staffers finally got to say what the executives couldn't — and what no game-show producer ever wants to hear:
The employees were reassured that Today viewers didn’t want their show to turn into Good Morning America, the ABC rival that has become Americans’ No. 1 choice in the mornings. But then they were told this: “What matters most is the anchor connection to the audience; what we need to work on is the connection.” As the word “connection” was repeated, some people in the room started to chuckle because of a name that went unspoken: Matt Lauer.
“What they meant was Matt. But no one would say it,” said a senior staff member who, like the others, spoke on condition of anonymity.
(Update: Here's more on the Jeopardy! host short list, now with Brian Williams and Dan Patrick.)
And now comes The Post's Michael Shain with an apparent exit strategy for the wounded Lauer, who appears to pull the levers at the former morning-show powerhouse even as his staff and audience are in something of a revolt. The Post reported earlier this week that Lauer wasn't planning to re-sign his $25-million-a-year contract, which expires in 2015. And that timing works: Trebek, who suffered a mild heart attack last June and has had his share of health problems despite neverending likability, is expected to step down from Jeopardy! in 2016, when he'll be close to 80 years old.
If the idea of Lauer ruining your favorite dinnertime quiz show is making you want to bang your head against a blue monitor, remember that nobody's looking at signing new contracts yet. A lot can happen in three years — including more talent scouting. The Post mentions that there's a Jeopardy! host short list which also includes Anderson Cooper, whose contract also apparently runs out next year and is already spending time in syndication-land as CNN retools itself. And the Times's Stelter believes other, less high-profile hosts may still have a shot:
Meanwhile, Lauer's co-host Savannah Guthrie swears things are actually great over at Today. "Everything's good. We're hanging in. It's better than the press would have you believe," she told the Times's Stuart Elliott. To that, Jeopardy! fans might answer: This fired female host of a once-popular morning show set the stage for a predecessor who was afraid to say anything bad about her reviled draconian co-host. Who is Ann Curry? That would be correct.