Appearing on 'Today' are Al Roker, left, Savannah Guthrie,… (Peter Kramer / NBC )
David Copperfield was supposed to visit the set of NBC's "Today" show last week, but when his flight had to make an emergency landing in Illinois the network went to Plan B — an interview with the illusionist from a hangar in Peoria.
Host Matt Lauer was game but technology wasn't. NBC's Skype connection produced bad audio and grainy images of a cheesy illusion that probably only served to make viewers disappear.
Just as that segment stumbled to an end, "Today" cameras caught comedian Chelsea Handler awkwardly walking onto the set before her hosts were ready to greet her.
It was amateur-hour television and exemplified the struggles at the once-dominant NBC show.
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"They are behaving like they don't know what they're doing at 7 a.m.," said Andrew Tyndall, a TV news consultant and analyst.
Once the crown jewel of morning television and a cash cow for NBC News, "Today" enjoyed almost 20 years as the show that got America out of bed. That came to an end last April after viewers failed to embrace the pairing of Lauer with Meredith Vieira's successor, Ann Curry, who was subsequently bumped in favor of Savannah Guthrie.
In the just-completed February sweeps, "Today" was down 13% in viewers and almost 20% among adults 25 to 54. Archrival "Good Morning America" was first in both categories.
The very public removal of Curry has tarnished Lauer's golden boy image and led to whispers about whether he'll be able to guide the show back to the top. When Willie Geist, an MSNBC personality, was named cohost of the third hour of "Today," that set off rumblings that he is being groomed for bigger things.
Tasked with getting "Today" back on track is Patricia Fili-Krushel, the new chairman of the NBCUniversal News Group, which includes not only NBC News but also cable channels MSNBC and CNBC.
In one of her first interviews since taking the job last July, Fili-Krushel acknowledged the network mishandled the Vieira-Curry-Guthrie transition. But she added that even without that fiasco the show had become too complacent and protective of its No. 1 perch.
"When you are No. 1, it's easy to stop taking chances," Fili-Krushel said. "I think we just stopped innovating."
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When GMA closed the gap and then took the lead, "Today" tried to copy it with more tabloid fare and an increase in goofy stunts. "We need to play our own game," she said.
Despite the concerns about the Lauer-Guthrie pairing, Fili-Krushel gave them a strong endorsement. "They are the ones who will take us back to No. 1," the executive said.
Something of a surprise choice to oversee NBC's news empire, given that she does not have a traditional journalism background, Fili-Krushel is a former president of ABC and a close confidant of NBCUniversal Chief Executive Steve Burke. She's also no stranger to morning television, having overseen the development and launch of ABC's "The View."
"She's a grown-up who thinks things through and understands television," said David Westin, a former president of ABC News who worked for Fili-Krushel for many years.
Some current and former NBC News staffers saw her hiring as an attempt by Burke and NBC parent Comcast Corp. to install some adult supervision over the unit, which like most news divisions often resembles a high school cafeteria full of gossip and romance.
"They don't like shenanigans and leaks and gossip, and that's what news divisions are," said one former NBC News senior staffer who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic. "It read as Burke's attempt to put in some parental guidance."
If fixing "Today" is Fili-Krushel's first priority, a close second is finding a replacement for Steve Capus, who stepped down this month as president of NBC News. The two names inside NBC most often mentioned for the job are Alexandra Wallace, recently installed as executive producer of "Today," and NBC News Senior Vice President Antoine Sanfuentes.
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Many people at NBC are betting, however, that she will go outside the company to fill the position. Fili-Krushel declined to comment on the search, which is expected to last several months.
As for her own role in the editorial operations, Fili-Krushel said she weighs in but that her main focus is on making NBC News run better as a business ceding the day-to-day responsibility for the editorial voice to her division heads.
The headaches at "Today" and the Capus vacancy are overshadowing the solid performance of much of the rest of the news unit. Brian Williams' evening newscast is in first place in both viewers and demographics.
Fox News dominates the cable news landscape, but MSNBC's move to veer to the left of the political spectrum has firmly entrenched it in second place ahead of CNN. The financial news channel CNBC remains very profitable despite increased competition from Bloomberg TV and Fox Business.