Savannah Guthrie is on the shortlist for Ann Curry's replacement. (Chris Usher / For The Times )
It's a good thing Savannah Guthrie is a trained lawyer because she's about to experience a trial by fire.
Guthrie, NBC's chief legal analyst, is the odds-on-favorite to succeed Ann Curry as co-host of the network's morning news show "Today" and take the hot seat next to Matt Lauer. Guthrie already serves as co-host of the third hour of NBC's "Today," so she is no stranger to morning television watchers.
But moving from the 9-10 a.m. hour of "Today" to the two-hour signature broadcast is the equivalent of going from the minor leagues to the New York Yankees. To say Guthrie will be under pressure is an understatement. Curry was yanked out of her seat on the No. 1-rated morning show after a barely a year on the job. The reason? Ratings for "Today" slipped by 4% after she replaced Meredith Vieira. As a result,ABC's"Good Morning America" has become much more competitive to "Today" and even briefly took over first place earlier this year.
"There is a premium for being No. 1," said Andrew Tyndall, a consultant who specializes in television news. "You can charge more for advertising and you'll be more successful in your bookings. That is an advantage 'Today' had and they need to get it back."
Although Curry was a regular presence on "Today" for years, the consensus is that she and Lauer did not have great chemistry and that she lacked the right touch for the softer stories, celebrity gossip and tabloid fare that have 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."
NBC is hoping that Guthrie, 40, will be a more relaxed presence who will play better off of Lauer. She started in local news before deciding to become a lawyer. After graduating from Georgetown's law school, she practiced briefly before returning to the small screen as an analyst for Court TV. She joined NBC in 2007 and served as White House correspondent before moving to "Today."
For NBC and its parent Comcast Corp., "Today" is a key franchise. The morning show generates between $200 million and $250 million in profit and takes in about $500 million in advertising revenue, according to people familiar with the show's economics. Not only that, its long-time ratings dominance has become a point of pride inside NBC's Rockefeller Center headquarters especially given the network's poor prime-time performance in recent years.
Keeping the show on top is why the network moved fast to make the change. NBC has the rights to the Summer Olympics, which start in late July, and "Today" is a big part of the network's coverage of the games. Given the likely jump in ratings "Today" will get during the Olympics, it represents an opportunity to showcase Guthrie to viewers and try to put some distance between the show and "Good Morning America."
"Today" has survived similar crises. The awkward transition from beloved Jane Pauley to Deborah Norville, who was seen fairly or not as having pushed her way to the seat next to then anchor Bryant Gumbel, caused the show to stumble in the ratings. Then Katie Couric replaced Norville and "Today" never looked back.
Officially, NBC is not saying when it will announce Guthrie's promotion, but she is expected to be very visible on the show regardless of whether she has the official co-host title.