NBC's storied "Today" show, the venerable network's biggest money-maker and most important brand, is suddenly in the market for a new face.
The sudden firing of longtime host Matt Lauer for alleged sexually inappropriate behavior, leaves a gaping opening for one of the most glamorous gigs in television broadcasting. While there is no shortage of aspiring candidates, the Peacock Network has a lot riding on getting it right.
According to Kantar Media, “Today” ad revenue for 2016 was estimated at $509 million – five percent of NBC’s Broadcast Television unit’s total revenue of $10.147 billion for 2016. Lauer, 59, was its biggest star by far -- presumably worth billions in pure profit to NBC over the next few years. And now the network will scramble to find a permanent replacement for its flagship program.
Hosts are replaced all the time on television but NBC appears to be in a serious situation with Lauer’s exit. He was a fan favorite and the network, according to NBC sources, fired him with no clear replacement lined up. “Today” ratings have been on a years-long downswing already and Lauer arguably attracted more viewers than any other element of the program.
Morning shows have traditionally -- with a few exceptions -- had a principal male and female host. And there is no male successor to Lauer waiting in the wings.
Lauer jealously guarded his throne and was notoriously resistant to possible male successors. Those who passed through “Today” left in messy exits. Josh Elliot, a gifted if tempestuous anchor who was brought to NBC with great fanfare in 2014 from arch rival “Good Morning America,” got little airtime on “Today” and quickly flamed out. Ambitious Billy Bush, who was hired as a co-host of the 9 a.m. hour of “Today,” was fired after his voice was heard on the notorious Donald Trump “Access Hollywood” tape, and after Bush “disrespected” Lauer, according to NBC sources, by recording an impromptu interview with swimmer Ryan Lochte during the Rio Olympics.
The existing stable of “Today” show men who’ve substituted for Lauer during his many absences and Fridays off over the years -- Willie Geist, Carson Daly and Craig Melvin -- are not viewed as viable successors by industry insiders.
Geist, a former sports anchor, has been substituting for Lauer the longest and has long been a darling of NBC’s front office, going back to when Jack Welch ran GE.
“That doesn’t take away from the problem that he’s not a very good anchor,” said one industry insider.
Carson Daly, insiders said, has issues with the show's majority audience of middle aged women, dating back to his “frat boy” reputation from his MTV years. And Craig Melvin is a complete unknown.
Insiders said not to discount the idea that NBC would experiment with a female duo, and newly minted “Today” co-host Megyn Kelly is an obvious candidate for Lauer’s chair. Kelly is now the highest paid star at NBC News with an estimated compensation of $23 million a year. Her 9 a.m. hour of “Today” has struggled badly to attract viewers and has been mocked by critics, but insiders say Kelly’s strengths in hard news and sharp-edged interviewing would be better suited for the 7 a.m. hour of “Today” which focuses more on news.
Vanity Fair even pondered if Kelly was “the next Matt Lauer” back in January when her role at NBC was still unclear.
“I know she is going to be sitting in one of those [Today show] chairs eventually,” a source told Vanity Fair when the famously ambitious Kelly was brought to NBC.
Another name possibly in the ring is disgraced former “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams, who showed his gift for morning gab during the few times he substituted on “Today.” After being spectacularly fired from “Nightly News” for embellishing his work as a war correspondent, Williams has been doing penance at MSNBC hosting an obscure 11 p.m. show. Industry insiders speculate that Lack, who is close friends with Williams, could use Lauer’s exit to convince NBC Universal boss Steve Burke that it was time let Williams back in the game.
NBC could also think outside the box and go after a superstar like former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart.
In 2012 when Lauer was making noises about possibly leaving NBC, network executives flew to Los Angeles to meet with Ryan Seacrest about replacing Lauer. Now however, Seacrest is under contract to ABC as a co-host of a rival morning show, “Live”, and also as a host of “American Idol” which begins in March.
Bravo’s Andy Cohen and New York 1’s Pat Kiernan have also been mentioned in various reports but lack the gravitas of Lauer. An AOL columnist floated the idea of NBC bringing back former "Today" co-host Ann Curry because “execs would see it as a statement against Lauer and his actions,” but that scenario is highly unlikely due to the acrimony that surrounded Curry’s departure. A more likely return would be Tamron Hall, who left after Megyn Kelly’s hire was announced, or even Elliot or Bush, who are both currently available and itching to get back in front of the camera.
NBC could also look to cable news and bring in a household name such as CNN’s Anderson Cooper, but his contract with the liberal network will be hard to break if the “AC 360” host was even interested in the early morning gig. If “Today” executives want to hire someone who will irk President Trump – who bashed the network in the aftermath of Lauer’s firing – renowned anti-Trump broadcaster Keith Olbermann is available. However, he probably ruined whatever dismal chance he had when he accused NBC of enabling Lauer on Twitter.
Lauer's firing comes just days after "CBS This Morning" host Charlie Rose was canned for his behavior towards women. There are now open seats at two of America’s premier morning shows and it will be fascinating to see who lands them.