Matt Lauer is the Voldemort of NBC News — no one dares say his name, even though performance meetings about the Today show's ratings swoon are all about him. But just as Hogwarts waited until its total demise to deal with Voldemort, it seems the gang at NBC and its morning-show moneymaker won't be getting rid of Lauer any time soon. The latest details to surface from the Today show set come from The New York Times's Brian Stelter, whose sources at NBC tell him that everyone knows Lauer is the problem. Here's the scoop on those performance reviews:
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.
Lauer is apparently he who must not be named. That narrative from people who actually work at the Today show — that staffers are well aware of Lauer's fading likability, that Ann Curry wasn't the problem after all, and that nobody wants to tell him, so they're telling the press — counters what we've been hearing of late. Namely, the executives, cushy anonymous sources, and Lauer himself, who all told the Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz earlier this week that Lauer is the "best person who's ever done this" and that "Lauer repeatedly tried to convince his bosses to slow things down and give Curry more time before she was pushed into a reduced role." Essentially, Kurtz's "exclusive" was just NBC's latest ploy into rehabbing their fading star's image, even as he faces silent revolt on his own show.
Stelter's report, unlike Kurtz's, doesn't seem to be NBC spin operating under the patina of a news story. Stelter points out some brutal facts about Lauer's stagnant popularity — that NBC is trying to figure out if Today's ratings are better when Lauer is on vacation, and that one of his rivals has a better Q-score, the ratings which tell executives which hosts audiences like best:
For the first time his counterpart on “Good Morning America,” George Stephanopoulos, has a higher score. For Mr. Lauer “the drop started happening in the beginning of 2012, and it’s slowly eroded since then,” said Henry Schafer of Marketing Evaluations, the company that surveys thousands of viewers to come up with the scores. NBC executives said its focus groups found otherwise.
Somewhere, Stephanopoulos is stroking a (small) white cat with a brandy snifter, while looking at a 42-inch blowup of his Q-score. But back to Lauer: It's clear that he, no matter what NBC does and no matter how many times it falls on its sword (again and again) for its $25 million man, can't shake the reality that morning-show audiences think he was a jerk to Ann Curry, and think he's a jerk now. Savannah Guthrie's effect on the show doesn't seem to have moved the needle either way, but it would seem like seriously reviewing Lauer's popularity might be the logical thing to do in light of such a ratings dive — that's what NBC executives did with Curry. Still, NBC's giving Lauer the benefit of the doubt.
"We are aware of all the ridiculous rumors and gossip," Alex Wallace, the star young NBC News executive recently put in charge of Today told Stelter. "We would like Matt Lauer to be in the chair as long as he would like to be. We hope that's for many years to come."