AS THE RUMORS SWIRL THAT MATT WILL FOLLOW MEREDITH OUT THE DOOR, A BILLION-DOLLAR FRANCHISE HEARS A GASP

Mano y mano: The only muscle Matt Lauer flexes with Tom Cruise is from the nose up.

A Today Show without Matt Lauer? Could this really be true? Could it still thrive?

Those are some of the questions recently posed to me by David Bauder of Associated Press. Where do I even begin?

As someone who’s studied Matt Lauer for many years, not just as a viewer but as a competitor, first as executive producer of ABC’s Good Morning America then senior executive producer of CBS’ Early Show, I can genuinely say with authority: there is simply no one like Matt Lauer in all of network news. There never has been, and now given the experience he adds to his broad range of skill sets, there probably never will be again.

So, NBC, what ever Matt wants, Matt should get. He’s certainly earned it.

HOW MATT LAUER BECAME “THE FONZ” OF MORNING TV AND WHY HIS BOSSES GET CREDIT FOR SPOTTING HIM

Most network news executives I have known would never have hired Matt Lauer in the first place. It’s clearly been their loss. You see, once upon a time, he was a young feature reporter for Robin Leach’s “Fame, Fortune and Romance,” a short-lived daytime series that rode the coat tails of the bigger show that brought you champagne wishes and caviar dreams. He then moved to New York and co-hosted a local talk show called 9 Broadway Plaza.

This, plus a few credits short of a degree from Ohio University, was not exactly the winning resume for a network news division, but somewhere within the NBC corporate hierarchy someone saw that Lauer was smart, fun to be around, comfortable in his own skin and likable. Not classically handsome, he was still sexy, appealing, someone who definitely sat at the cool kid’s table of life.

If Matt Lauer didn’t have the credentials to get to The Today Show where he was destined to rule, the smart folks at NBC would intervene. in 1992 they parked him at their local New York affiliate to develop some news chops, and in short order they “transitioned” him to Today, first as the news anchor, then in the big chair next to Katie Couric.

At any other network? I suspect he might have been nitpicked to death by executives, hazed out the building by colleagues.

But he was lucky enough to be at NBC where he has now co-anchored the #1 show in the morning for 798 consecutive weeks and still counting.

WHO’S THE SMARTEST? NOBODY CARES

When I first arrived at Good Morning America in 1999, our crack promotion team has designed an ad campaign to play to the strengths of Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson: “Start Smarter.” After the first season I asked questions to determine its success. “Well, the campaign was definitely a success,” I was told. “The viewers definitely believe the GMA anchors are smarter.” Only it didn’t matter, viewers preferred watching Katie and Matt.

At the time, I was given a brilliant metaphor: it’s like flying. No one never asks if United pilots are more qualified than American’s; there is an assumption all pilots are “qualified enough”. We make our choices for the other “stuff:” how comfortable we’re made to feel, if the staff is warm and welcoming, if the snacks and extras are fun.

The “stuff” Matt Lauer brings to Today is unrivaled. He’s certainly much more than “smart enough.” He can match skills with the best in our business on lead newsmaker interviews. But that’s the “pilot” part.

Matt Lauer is unabashedly fun.

A SCARY NETWORK NEWS STORY

For the five Halloween shows I produced at GMA, Charlie Gibson refused to put on a costume, saying he wouldn’t even be photographed in a hat. (The year after I left, he actually wore a shirt and a stethoscope.)

At The Early Show in 2007, the year of the Britney Spears meltdowns, I came up with an idea that if not bold, was at least inspired for Harry Smith and his signature bald head: that he be cast as the pop star during her shaved head episode. He certainly got the joke and was not offended by the suggestions, but he told me it wasn’t a good idea given his ambitions for the evening anchor chair. I suspect that weighed on Charlie Gibson’s mind as well.

Matt Lauer as J Lo: The Bold and The Beautiful

Now over to Matt Lauer: Come on, he wouldn’t be caught dead in a stethoscope.  Over on the plaza you’ll find him drag, looking like J. Lo in that stunning blue evening gown with the neckline that plunged down to Rio. Top that off with a size 11 or 12 stiletto heel and you have the #1 morning anchor in network news.

Bottom line: Matt Lauer is not just secure, but honorable enough that when he signs his giant paycheck, he is working at all times for the show he’s assigned to, not worrying about the one he’d like to be assigned to.

Interviews with pop culture icons? Who would have thought there would be a bigger “water cooler” than Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch? Matt Lauer probably knew — when he prepped for his interview, then held Cruise’s feet to the fire on his public criticism of medication to treat mental illness.

The Cruise interview and others like it require surgical interviewing skills unique to morning viewers who don’t want their valuable time wasted and want to be informed. They demand their anchors are always polite, but don’t necessarily want them to offer a puppy pass to, Rod Blagojevich, Tiger Woods, Chris Brown or anyone named Lohan.

If you study Lauer as I have, he seems to always hit the appropriate tone. He never postures at his guest’s expense. The intensity is in his directness, not his volume. He will lean forward in his chair, using his body language to signal viewers what he’s thinking. You will never find him leaning back in the chair, rambling or enjoying the sound of his own long-winded question..

Yes, he also cooks, he cleans, he races cars and skis off the Matterhorn. His on-air camaraderie looks so effortless, he even fooled the president of another network that the team’s long term “interpersonal relationships” was the key to Today’s success. You’d almost think that Matt and Katie or Meredith hung out together after the show when in fact it’s a skill not an evolutionary phenomenon.

A.P.’S NEXT QUESTION: HOW WILL TODAY BE ABLE TO TRANSITION FROM MEREDITH?

Given their management’s track record, if they can transition from Katie Couric without hiccups, they can transition from Meredith Viera without hiccups. Her successful arrival to show, came down to Lauer’s generosity as a co-anchor and patience from the show’s producers. Yes, Meredith is smart, likable and rates high on the fun scale, but that’s not enough when you’re stepping into a chair occupied by a someone viewers have woken up with for much of their adult life.

NBC clearly learned from their mistake in ’89 when viewers rejected the suddenly replacement of Jane Pauley with Deborah Norville. Next was a downright elegant transition from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams at Nightly News. It was announced more than a year in advance, Williams was named heir apparent and Brokaw is welcomed back to NBC News regularly for elections, documentaries and other projects he creates as he continues to redefine “retirement.”

When Dan Rather replaced the man some believe is the father of the modern news anchoring, Walter Cronkite was never to be seen again by CBS news viewers, He not only was replaced, he was displaced. If Katie Couric leaves in June, as expected, she leaves with her head held high for some of her outstanding broadcasts in spite of a weakened news division that was resistant to letting her lead.

ABC seems to repeat the mistakes of everyone. When they replaced the beloved Joan Lunden with Lisa McRee, a highly popular news anchor at the Los Angeles, the latter was almost nibbled to death by ducks. Management nitpicked the show, her clothes, everything that can undermine an anchor’s confidence.

Over the past few years I’ve come to know Lisa McRee well and she has an unusually high number of skill sets needed to anchor a morning show. She’s well read, and an original thinker. She’s the fun person at any dinner party. She’s adventurous, trendy, and confident. She’s an innovative cook, and a curious interviewer.

So why didn’t she work out? Maybe she picked the wrong network.

Yes, NBC, since the 1989 Deborah Norville debacle, has gotten it right. I’m sure they’re as ambitious and internally competitive as hell over there, but they all seem to work for the betterment of the shows. They don’t leak vicious stories about each other and the top executive certainly doesn’t denigrate his anchor when speaking at his kid’s school.

In Today’s world, with morning show success calculated minute by minute by Nielsen, and hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, the networks actually have a fiduciary responsibility to their corporate shareholders to get it right.

That’s why I think NBC has got to continue to make Matt Lauer the happiest guy in tv and they’ve got to open his contract early and lock him in right away. Morning show viewers can react as one might in a love affair when you sense someone might not be sticking around. You begin to detach, see who else is out there, and even if there’s no one out there as appealing, you might just impulsively be the first to bail.

The long goodbye mastered by Brokaw, who let us know we’d still see him around the campus, is not something Matt Lauer will as easily enjoy, especially if big offers and tall numbers are hashed over regularly in the press. Let’s hope  NBC spares us the details.

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