LOS ANGELES – It is the story that never ends.
The image of a sobbing, pained Ann Curry on her last morning co-anchoring 'Today' alongside a seemingly insincere Matt Lauer – who awkwardly offers a shoulder rub – remains firmly planted in the minds of American audiences.
But according to Lauer, that June morning wasn’t a reflection of the whole truth.
Since Curry’s messy departure and Savannah Guthrie's ascension into her position on the 'Today' couch, NBC’s $20-million-a-year man Matt Lauer has born much of the blame for the messy situation, with multiple news articles citing him as the instigator behind Curry's ouster.
And as 'Today' ratings continue to slip, and the nation’s once highest-rated morning news program (for over 16 years) falls further and further behind now first-place 'Good Morning America,' NBC’s unsuccessful attempts to reboot Lauer’s public persona with such strategies as hosting the Golden Globes red carpet for the first time in 17 years, and a new ad campaign featuring Lauer and 'Tdoay' weatherman Al Roker reminiscing about the past, has now called for the ultimate crisis management move.
Lauer has broken his silence.
“I don’t think the show and the network handled the transition well. You don’t have to be Einstein to know that,” Lauer told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview published Monday. “It clearly did not help us. We were seen as a family, and we didn’t handle a family matter well.”
The Daily Beast ran an an accompanying video entitled “Matt Lauer Loves Ann Curry,” and former NBC News President Steve Capus was also quoted in Monday’s article, defending the star journalist.
“When Matt was informed that we had made this decision, his good counsel was to go slow, to take care of Ann and to do the right things,” he said. “He was quietly and publicly a supporter of Ann’s throughout the entire process. It is unfair that Matt has shouldered an undue amount of blame for a decision he disagreed with.”
But while Lauer may have supported her during show execs' moves to get her out of the studio, the article also revealed that he had tried to woo Katie Couric back to 'Today' before Curry was officially promoted, but that the plan had fizzled largely due to money issues.
The article also quoted NBC’s Chief Executive Steve Burke, who claimed that, at one point last fall, Lauer even offered to resign.
“If you think the show’s better off without me, let me know and I’ll get out of the way,” Burke recalled Lauer telling him, although he said that option was never on the table. “You’re the best person who’s ever done this," he said he told Lauer.
But will audiences buy the story that Curry’s controversial exit was not really Lauer’s fault?
“The piece is a not-so-thinly veiled attempt to make the senior executives the bad guys, and humanize Matt Lauer. In Lauer’s defense, the average viewer doesn’t know the NBC producers so he will naturally draw more of the ire of viewers,” Jason Maloni, Senior Vice President of Levick Communications told FOX411’s Pop Tarts column. “Unfortunately, it’s hard to generate sympathy for either Lauer or the 'Today Show'’s legacy.”
Crisis management expert Glenn Selig argued that Lauer’s comments on the issue didn’t go deep enough.
“Matt is talking about this because until he does address it, it doesn’t go away. NBC has tried for many weeks hoping that time would heal wounds but it has not. Viewers are fickle, and the audience must like you and trust you. In a short time, Matt went from a man who you would like to have over to someone who would do whatever it takes to succeed even if it means tossing someone overboard,” he explained. “Matt needed to go further in reflecting his mistakes and NBC’s mistakes. He comes across as a would-be hero if they only listened to him.”
Lauer’s words have attracted quite a few skeptics among the Twitterverse too.
“You can’t fake decency. Matt Lauer has 2 keep ego in check,” tweeted one, another called it a “desperate attempt to wipe blood of his hands’ and another referred to it as simply “rehabilitation.”
But irrespective of whether Lauer is to blame or not, almost nine months since Curry’s departure, is it simply a PR fail that the network has continued to address it at all?
“They are extending a story, because they either don’t have the good sense or discipline to refrain from talking about it or because they haven’t been able to keep their people from leaking information,” explained branding expert Mark DiMassimo, CEO of the New York-based Digo Brands. “They should shut up about it. Bad ratings are the big story now – they need new news, better news, and a forward-looking attitude.
According to Lauer, he is leading the way in doing just that. The high-profile personality went on to distance himself from the program’s ailing audience numbers, which have been sitting at around one million viewers less than its arch rival 'GMA,' by telling the Daily Beast that he argued against the “dour and depressing and dark” tone the show took over the past six months in opting for more crime and celebrity scandal-driven stories but that he “was losing a lot of those battles” to the program’s other powers-to-be.
Yet now, the co-anchor seems to be getting his way.
“It’s a much more positive show, a more uplifting show,” he insisted. “Much of the darkness is gone, by design.”
However, some media say the 'Today' team still has their work cut out wooing viewers back into their fold.
“What we are seeing here is an ‘out-of-nowhere’ chance to clear Matt’s name. Whether he is genuine or not is not the objective. His objective is to reach out to those who lost confidence in him. It brings the conversation back to the center of the debate which may raise viewership in the short-term,” added reputation management expert and founder of WebiMax, Kenneth Wisnefski. “Since Lauer has told his side of the story, all sides are equal now. In order to project a positive image to viewers, NBC should consider bringing Ann Curry back in-studio, or have a ‘reunion’ where Lauer and Curry tell the news together. This will help to show unison and camaraderie for them, and show that the past is behind them.”
NBC did not respond to a request for comment.