NBC needs to fix "Today" a little more quietly. From left, Al… (Associated Press )
If NBC News wants its morning program “Today” to move beyond the problems it has had in the last year, a good first step might be to stop reliving them in the media.
Rightfully concerned about the decline in ratings at its biggest news franchise and the beating host Matt Lauer has been taking in the media since Ann Curry was shown the door in favor of Savannah Guthrie, the network has been trying to put its own spin on the story.
But the approach is just refocusing attention on everything that went wrong — with little being said about how “Today” is trying to fix itself.
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First Lauer and NBCUniversal Chief Executive Steve Burke talked to Howard Kurtz of the Daily Beast to make the case that Lauer was an innocent bystander in the Curry debacle. Now, in this week's edition of New York magazine, writer Joe Hagan (full disclosure: I briefly worked with Hagan at the Wall Street Journal and also recently wrote a story about new NBCUniversal News Group Chairman Pat Fili-Krushell) was given a lot of access to Lauer and the rest of the "Today" team.
Hagan's access was intended to help the story focus on the new team at “Today” and the rebuilding effort that is going on. But the result was a juicy story reminding people how NBC messed up one of its most valuable franchises.
Hagan opens his story with a description of Lauer playing with a knife for a piece on airline safety. The host then makes a joke about not wanting to be photographed with a knife, which, alas, provided Hagan with a perfect opportunity for this zinger.
"If Matt Lauer doesn’t want to be seen with sharp knives, it’s because last summer his co-host Ann Curry was discovered with one in her back."
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No one from NBC comes across well in Hagan's lengthy opus. We learn that NBC brass wouldn't let Curry tweet good wishes to ailing rival Robin Roberts of ABC's "Good Morning America," and that Lauer wasn't exactly a team player when it came to working with Curry. We get a rehash of all the drama at "Today" between former NBC News President Steve Capus and former "Today" executive producer Jim Bell. After reading this story, it's pretty clear why the word "former" is in front of both of their titles. We even get some old rumors about Lauer's extracurricular activities.
NBC isn't doing Lauer or "Today" any favors with these attempts at damage control. If a TV show is trying to emerge from a bad situation, letting insiders into the tent may not be the best strategy. Even under the most ideal situation, NBC had to know there would be a painful retelling of the Lauer-Curry fiasco along with any positive news. Hagan might have done his story with or without NBC's participation, but he certainly wouldn't have come away with as much color and anecdotes to use against Lauer & Co. if the network had stayed mum.
Instead of worrying about winning back the media, shouldn't NBC be more focused on winning back its audience? Convince viewers that "Today" is a family worth spending time with every morning and the story will change.
NBC has a similar drama brewing in late night as it prepares to move Jimmy Fallon into Jay Leno's spot. They might think twice about giving anyone access to Leno right now.
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Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.
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