Matt Lauer and Ann Curry in happier times. (Associated Press )
"I'm sorry I couldn't carry the ball over the finish line," NBC "Today" co-anchor Ann Curry said during her tearful farewell speech on Thursday morning's show.
Whether Curry was apologizing to the audience or her bosses, or both, is unclear. But fairly or not, she has been pegged as the cause of NBC's ratings woes. Curry was tapped to replace Meredith Vieira as Matt Lauer's co-anchor a year ago and almost immediately ABC's"Good Morning America" started to close the ratings gap.
Now with "Good Morning America" running neck-and-neck with "Today" and even winning on occasion, NBC and its parent company Comcast can't afford to risk any further damage to its news franchise.
This season, "Today" is averaging 5.3-million viewers, which is a 4% drop from last season. At the same time, "Good Morning America" has gained 4% to 4.9-million viewers, according to Nielsen.
"Comcast knows that news and sports are the only NBC properties that are going to make money for them," said Andrew Tyndall, a TV news consultant and analyst.
While NBC does not break out numbers for "Today," people close to the show have pegged its profitability in the $200-million to $250-million range annually. The first two hours of "Today," which are the most vital, generate about $500 million in annual advertising revenue.
So, being in first place is more than just bragging rights. Advertisers pay a premium for morning shows, and the first-place show gets better bookings in terms of celebrities and world leaders.
"That is an advantage 'Today' had and they need to get it back," Tyndall said.
NBC is banking on the Summer Olympics in London to energize "Today." While it has not announced Curry's replacement, "Today" correspondent Savannah Guthrie, who cohosts the show's third hour and also is a legal reporter, is expected to get the nod.
The decision to promote Curry to cohost from news anchor on "Today" was seen as a risk at the time. While no one questioned her reporting chops and hard-news background, there were always concerns about her chemistry with Lauer and whether she had the right touch for the softer stories, celebrity gossip and tabloid fare that has become a staple of morning television.
"You have to know what’s fun and where you can roll your eyes," observed Tyndall. "Lauer knows how to be sarcastic as well as how to be concerned."
One former NBC executive who was there at the time of Vieira's departure said there was a general consensus that Curry and Lauer would not be a match made in heaven. However, there was no immediate alternative, so rather than take the risk with someone unknown to "Today" viewers, a decision was made to reward Curry and hope that perhaps Lauer's loyal fan base could carry the show.
The mishandling of Curry brings to mind NBC's about-face on Conan O'Brien, who was given the job of "Tonight Show" host only to have the network reinstate Jay Leno when Conan's ratings went south.
But NBC News has always prided itself on smooth transitions, such as when Katie Couric handed off to Vieira or when Brian Williams took over for Tom Brokaw on "Nightly News."
Because of the Olympics, the new "Today" team will get plenty of sampling. Come September, though, if the show is still struggling to hold off "GMA," the NBC brass may have to look at more than who's on camera in trying to figure out how to fix the show.
Ann Curry says farewell from "Today"
Why is "Today" ready to boot Ann Curry?
"Today" claws back to top of morning wars