Media Notes: No. 1 Morning Show 'Today' Thrives 'on That Feeling of Family'

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 26, 2009

Matt Lauer kept complaining that he was warm in the small studio with the majestic Capitol behind him, so when he was joined at the anchor desk by NBC's Natalie Morales, he was surprised that her hands felt cold.

"Put your hand down my back, please," he joked.

"Or anywhere," co-host Meredith Vieira chimed in.

The "Today" gang teased and kibitzed their way through two days of inaugural coverage in Washington last week, but for all the newsmaker interviews and carefully produced taped pieces, it quickly became clear that the entire venture is powered by personal relationships.

"The show is built on that feeling of family," Vieira says. "You can't fake it. People pick up on any vibe that feels off."

"People always say, 'Show me chemistry,' " Lauer says. "Once you start analyzing it, you screw it up. It's not a recipe. It's not like baking a cake."

Other morning shows take an ensemble approach as well, but top-rated "Today" fields a core team -- Lauer, Ann Curry and Al Roker, who were joined by Vieira more than two years ago -- that has been showing up for breakfast for a long time.

During a major event such as Barack Obama's inauguration, "I think the reason people tune in is they want to see you guys," Curry says, glancing at Lauer and Vieira. "They want to experience it with people they're comfortable with."

Roker says they openly talk about raising their kids and mourning the passing of parents. "We have shared our lives," he says. Vieira has spoken on the air with her husband, producer Richard Cohen, who is battling multiple sclerosis. Last month the show wheeled out a huge cake to celebrate the birthdays of Lauer and Vieira, which, oddly, are both Dec. 30.

At times, news has seemed to take a back seat to personality, amid the cooking segments and global excursions (such as Curry climbing Mount Kilimanjaro) that the hosts insist are needed to leaven a diet of grim subjects. But when major events happen, "Today" often snags the biggest bookings, whether it is Valerie Plame, Larry Craig, Britney Spears, the beauty queen embarrassed by her drunken Facebook photos or the Florida teenager who couldn't stop hiccupping.

The competition can be fierce. Lauer booked US Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger after his miraculous safe landing in the Hudson River. But on Friday, "60 Minutes" announced that Lauer's ex-partner Katie Couric had lured Sullenberger into appearing on the CBS newsmagazine instead, prompting NBC to complain that people close to the pilot "gave us their word and then broke their commitment."

ABC's Robin Roberts got the first post-inauguration interview with the Obamas for "Good Morning America," after parent company Disney paid $2 million for exclusive rights to broadcast a ball and concert. But NBC plans to announce this morning that Lauer will interview the president before next Sunday's Superbowl.

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