In the nearly 66-year history of NBC’s “Today,” the program that invented morning television, all of its stars have been considered part of an extended family.
Every few years, regardless of whether they were fired or unceremoniously replaced, the hosts reappear to help celebrate a show milestone. Even J. Fred Muggs, the chimp who was removed for biting guests on the program in the 1950s, was invited back. They were part of the “Today” legacy — a carefully molded, yet intimate, group of personalities welcomed into the homes of millions of Americans each morning.
But Matt Lauer may never show up in the program’s Rockefeller Plaza studio again after the network announced Wednesday that he was fired for inappropriate sexual behavior, making him the latest TV news star to be brought down by such allegations.
Lauer’s departure could have far-reaching reverberations — not just for NBC and “Today,” but for morning television, which has started to see its audience and influence erode after decades of dominance. As audiences become more fragmented and news consumers, especially younger ones, turn to new technology, personalities known to viewers on a first-name basis are increasingly hard to come by.
One veteran news producer who worked with Lauer predicted his departure would likely cut into the ratings for “Today” by 10% to 15%. But along with the decline in viewers, the loss of Lauer means morning TV will be without one of its most recognizable faces.
“He was pivotal to the success of the “Today” show — an important part of a crown jewel of the NBCUniversal empire,” said Stephen Hahn-Griffiths, chief research officer of the Reputation Institute in Boston. “His demeanor and his general disposition clearly was palatable across the gender spectrum. He also has journalistic credibility.”
The prominence of the broadcast television news anchor has ebbed in recent years with the retirement of longtime standard-bearers such as Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw, the death of Peter Jennings, the demotion of Brian Williams — and the rise of cable news networks CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.
Morning anchor jobs have become higher-profile than their evening news counterparts, as they are major profit centers for their companies and can set the agenda for the rest of the day even in the age of the internet.
One reason Lauer stayed at “Today” for so long is that the morning anchor job has maintained its high profile in the culture while broadcast TV ratings have faded. Even as the audience for “Today” has declined in recent years, with 4.2 million viewers in the 2016-17 season, compared with 4.6 million for ABC’s “Good Morning America” and 3.56 million for “CBS This Morning,” Lauer was still the best-known — and one of the most liked — personalities in all of television.
Lauer, who had been with the show for 23 years, also wielded tremendous power at “Today” as he became its biggest star after Katie Couric departed in 2006. His influence over the program grew in recent years to the point that no male successor has emerged on the program. It’s likely that co-anchor Savannah Guthrie will be paired with Hoda Kotb in at least the short term.
His popularity in the show’s storied history was rivaled only by that of founding host Dave Garroway; its first female star, Barbara Walters; and Couric.
Lauer’s outsized power was not necessarily healthy for the show, according to Michael Socolow, a media historian and associate professor at the University of Maine. It may have even allowed the harassment allegations that have been raised against him to fester.
“The $20-million-plus network television news anchor is done,” Socolow said. “The Matt Lauer issue is a corporate management problem. And with Lauer gone, so will be the kind of control over personnel and broadcasts that set up these problems.”
Since Meredith Vieira left the program in 2011, “Today” has lost about 1 million viewers and relinquished its 16-consecutive-year streak of success in the ratings to ABC’s “Good Morning America” in 2012. But NBC News has re-upped Lauer’s contract twice since then, fearing his departure would lead to further erosion. Now the division will learn whether that is the case.
Neal Shapiro, a former president of NBC News, believes “Today” can weather the change even though Lauer loomed large over the franchise in recent years.
“I don’t think it’s the end of an era — morning shows are ensembles and people come and go,” Shapiro said. “I’m sure it will be a challenging time for ‘Today’ going forward. But people’s relationships with those shows are not just with a single anchor. They are often with a whole network. They are long-running shows for a reason because of the time period they are in and the substance they have.”
The “Today” audience who watched Lauer’s steady rise to stardom developed a strong connection to him over time. He wasn’t an overnight sensation, but persevered for years before he became the highest-paid anchor in television, earning in excess of $20 million annually in recent years.
Lauer spent the first 10 years of his broadcasting career as a journeyman host in local television and was ready to quit and take a job as a tree-cutter in 1992. His luck turned after he received a call from an executive at WNBC in New York who offered him a job reading the early-morning news on the local station. Lauer soon found himself filling in as the newsreader on “Today,” and by 1994 he had the job full time.
Lauer became a co-anchor alongside Couric in 1997, and their on-air interactions, in which they would playfully zing each other like siblings, made them an immediate sensation.
As a team, Lauer, Couric, news reader Ann Curry and weather anchor Al Roker became the morning TV equivalent of the Beatles, attracting excited crowds outside the street-level studio in the concrete canyon of Rockefeller Plaza in Midtown Manhattan.
“Today” became so popular that it enabled NBC to expand the morning franchise into the 9 a.m. hour in 2000, and to 10 a.m. in 2008 with other hosts.
Over time, Lauer emerged as the star of the program. Morning show producers say he was better than any other male host at alternating between serious, hard-news interviews and the soft features and stunts required by morning TV.
“I think of Matt as the James Bond of the broadcast,” Curry said in a 2011 interview. “He is so good at everything.”
But Lauer had some bumps along the road, starting with Curry. A beloved “Today” cast member, Curry did not succeed when promoted to be Lauer’s co-anchor in 2011. Their lack of on-air rapport was apparent and ratings dropped. Curry was ultimately pulled from the co-anchor chair, and many female fans blamed Lauer, saying he had a condescending attitude toward her and hastened her exit.
Lauer also faced criticism last year for his handling of a town hall forum between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in which he cut off Clinton repeatedly, but allowed a false claim by Trump to go unchallenged.
Times staff writer Meg James contributed to this report.