By ROBIN GIVHAN
Sunday, March 30, 2008
It has been six months since NBC tacked on a fourth hour to "The Today Show." And those excruciating additional 60 minutes might best be described as a women's magazine -- pre-"Feminine Mystique" -- brought to life. It is an hour dominated by extreme weight-loss stories, ambush makeovers and recipes for carrot cake so good that it will make a man propose.
"Today," which continues to be the top-rated morning show on television, has always become more feature-driven as morning moves toward afternoon. But by the time the fourth hour hits the airwaves at 10 a.m., the content not only becomes so diluted that it is readily understandable by a 10-year-old, it also harks back to another era -- a time when, say, the idea of a woman being a serious contender for the White House was unthinkable.
A regular feature in this fourth hour is Friday's ambush makeover, in which some eager beaver is yanked from the crowd of screaming tourists on the Rockefeller Center plaza. Invariably, the women look better than when they arrived. But unlike the best makeover shows -- and some of them are informative and helpful -- there's no sense that any lessons have been learned. With the show moving along at such a brisk pace, the transformation reads like little more than a visit from a fairy godmother, and one suspects that the next morning, the lucky Cinderella will wake up with flat hair, a missing shoe and nothing to wear.
Men and women who have lost 100 pounds or more through diet and exercise are regularly inducted into Joy's Fit Club. Nutritionist Joy Bauer celebrates these weight-loss success stories by having the new "members" describe the moment that pushed them to do something about their weight. Bauer has both a joyless and tsk-tsking approach to food, and one has the impression that she wouldn't hesitate to smack the birthday cake right out of the hand of a 5-year-old. There is something inherently carnivalesque about these segments, which always seem to include the newly svelte guest holding up a pair of old XXXXL trousers for emphasis and co-anchor Hoda Kotb essentially asking, "So how did it feel to be as big as a house?"
Beauty tips have included a segment in which viewers are told how they can combine two different products -- a moisturizer and a self-tanner, perhaps -- to create a third product, which sounds like an invitation for a nasty red rash all over one's face.
The anchors go along, pretending they actually care about these segments and attempting to puff them up with verbiage: declaring a tank top for a longer torso or a pair of workout pants sized for a petite frame as fashion "breakthroughs." Anchor Ann Curry slips into the lower registers of her voice trying, through sheer gravitas of tone, to lend these segments a hint of dignity. Yet when the insufferable pedagogue Dr. Laura Schlessinger, in the aftermath of the Eliot Spitzer sex scandal, whined about the mischaracterization of her point -- that the wives of men who cheat bear some of the responsibility for the philandering -- Curry simply turned away, realizing that even if she managed to conjure up the bass of James Earl Jones, the segment could not be saved. It was adrift somewhere between "The View" and a Bill O'Reilly rant.
The final hour of "Today" is distinguished from the preceding hours with a fresh introduction and opening title. Any of the news or the weightier fare that preceded it feels as though it was from an altogether different program. It is akin to Allure with all of the editor's favorite cosmetics picks but none of the smart reporting about the plastic surgery industry. Or Glamour with all the fun do's and don'ts but none of the international reporting on women's rights.
The fourth hour of "Today" is like a parody of what people who don't read women's magazines think defines them. It calls to mind a comment from the CBS reporter Lara Logan when she was honored as one of Glamour's Women of the Year in 2007. She noted that she was initially bewildered that the magazine would want to give her an award and skeptical about accepting it. It was a fashion magazine, after all. One could practically hear the rivulets of derision dripping from her words. But it was also a magazine that celebrated women such as Nancy Pelosi, Donna Karan, Toni Morrison and the presidents of Harvard, Princeton, Brown and the University of Pennsylvania. It celebrates women for their brains while also advising them on where to get a good pedicure.
The "Today" extension is not as virulently egregious as "Jerry Springer." No one has, thus far, flung a chair across the studio. But a recent segment in which three accomplished women, discussing the "deal-breakers" in their relationships, listed everything from bad breath to infidelity, could certainly be described as soul-sapping. It was like watching smart people sinking into blithering babble at 10:30 in the morning.
The country's premier morning show has defined women's dialogue as pablum. And it's enough to make one gag.