Early to Rise
Camaraderie Remains the Key to Top-Rated 'Today' Show's Morning Glory

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.

"Today," like the other morning shows, has a tabloid-like love of sensational crime stories; it aired seven reports on murdered toddler Caylee Anthony last month and two more Thursday and Friday. Says Executive Producer Jim Bell: "Whether it's the Menendez brothers or O.J. or Stacy or Laci Peterson," two missing women with the same last name whose cases became national soap operas, "some of these crime stories tend to find a place in the national consciousness. . . . They become talkable. We tend to do pretty well with those stories."

"Today" clearly tilts toward female viewers after 8 a.m. Thursday's offerings included the cost of adoption, why women are attracted to bad boys, fashionable winter clothing and pie-making for National Pie Day.

Confrontational moments have also generated publicity. In 2005, Tom Cruise lectured Lauer during a debate over antidepressants, saying he didn't know anything about psychiatry. Last month the actor paid a return visit and apologized.

In 2006, conservative author Ann Coulter used a "Today" appearance to assail a group of 9/11 widows as "harpies" who were enjoying their husbands' deaths. The show invited Coulter back this month, and she promptly accused "Today" of trying to ban her after her appearance was delayed -- for a day, as it turned out -- by other bookings.

Lauer defends the Coulter segments, saying: "I don't think you can walk away from someone because maybe they get under your skin. We've had flame-throwers from the right and the left."

"Today" has reigned as the top morning show for a remarkable 13 years, even as overall audiences, not unlike the rest of television, have declined over the last four years. The program averaged 5.5 million viewers a day last year, compared with 4.4 million for "Good Morning America" and 2.8 million for CBS's "Early Show." So isn't there a temptation to phone it in?

"The only place you can go is down," Vieira says. "There's real motivation there."

Whenever "GMA" has narrowed the ratings gap, Lauer says, "it's an awful feeling." He says his colleagues started studying the rival program but realized that "you can't start mimicking someone else."

Media coverage of the run-up to the inauguration was overwhelmingly positive, and "Today" was no exception. From their studio on North Capitol Street, the hosts kept talking about the excitement and optimism that had swept Washington.

They ran crisply through interviews with the likes of D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, Tom Brokaw, David Gregory, Chuck Todd and Gwen Ifill. What viewers didn't see were the near-mishaps behind the scenes: The technician who crouched behind the anchor desk after failing to mike Curry in the final seconds of a commercial break. The floor director shouting "Natalie's too tall!" -- prompting Morales to lower her chair with a bump so she didn't tower over Lauer. Nor did they hear Lauer grumbling that the four-hour inauguration special was dragging on.

But they might remember how Lauer teased Vieira over her proper pronunciation of rapper 50 Cent's name, saying she had to get "the F out of there" (and call him "Fitty Cent"). Later, the hosts convulsed in laughter when, after a story on how presidents age in office, the staff put up a photo of how Lauer might look in four years: It was gaunt-looking actor Abe Vigoda.

During an interview with chef Shannon Shaffer, who explained that he was serving duck and pheasant to Obama and congressional leaders at a Tuesday luncheon, Vieira asked: "Did Vice President Cheney shoot them?" Her colleagues groaned, and Lauer pronounced it a "fowl comment."

Transitions can be difficult, as the botched 1990 rollout of Deborah Norville as a co-host made clear. When Lauer first joined Katie Couric as a co-host on "Today" in 1997, "Katie was clearly the star of the show," he says. "I had to fight for an equal role."

He says he tried to make things easy for Vieira when she succeeded Couric, who became the "CBS Evening News" anchor in 2006. "With Katie, I knew exactly when she was going to stop talking, and I could finish her sentence," Lauer recalls. With Vieira, "we tripped over each other for those first few months. I was helping her flex different muscles than she had used on 'The View.' "

For Vieira, "to adjust to a new family that had been together so long, and knew each other so well, that for me was a challenge," she says. "It looked like maybe I was going to be the crazy aunt moving in with the family. I do have a screw loose. . . . It's really a dance, what we do.

"I'm not saying we all go out after the show and have coffee and sing 'Kumbaya,' " Vieira adds. But the team grew so friendly that there was talk of a camping trip.

Vieira gave Curry a big hug and a shriek Monday during their first encounter of the Washington trip. And she mockingly calls Lauer a "sex star," referring to a shirtless photo published by Us Weekly, forcing him to play down the market for "a 51-year-old balding man."

They defend the sometimes silly ritual in which the hosts stand outside 30 Rock, even in frigid weather, saying the brief interaction with screaming fans is an important part of the show. "They're always so happy that we're not jerks," Curry says.

For all the emphasis on sharing their lives, sometimes a little too much hangs out. Last fall, introducing a segment about marriage, Vieira told Lauer, "I got married in my thirties. When did you get married?"

It was an awkward subject -- Lauer's first marriage ended in divorce -- and as he stuttered and then laughed, she buried her face in her hands.

Vieira is not quite as unabashed as she was on "The View," but she can make Lauer nervous: "Every once in a while, I'll say something, and he'll say, 'I need this job.' "

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