Daytime TV legend Kathie Lee Gifford is leaving the co-host chair on the fourth hour of NBC’s “Today” next year, the latest personnel change to hit the network’s lucrative morning franchise.
Gifford, 65, made the announcement Tuesday alongside co-host Hoda Kotb. The two have shared the 10 a.m. hour of “Today” since 2008. Gifford will work through the show’s 11th anniversary in April.
NBC News President Noah Oppenheim said in a memo to the staff that Gifford was leaving to focus on her feature film, music and book projects. Gifford took several weeks off “Today” earlier this year to shoot a movie produced by “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner.
Gifford’s upcoming departure is the latest talent move at the venerable “Today” franchise, which has depended on stable on-air lineups to keep habit-driven morning viewers tuned in.
In October, the network abruptly fired third-hour host Megyn Kelly after she made racially insensitive comments on her program. NBC is paying out the remainder of her annual $20-million-plus contract.
Last year, “Today” lost its longtime co-anchor Matt Lauer, who was fired after allegations of inappropriate workplace behavior with a female employee.
There is no scandal or controversy attached to Gifford’s exit. Colleagues have long been saying she is simply tired of the daily live TV grind and was looking to move on and spend more time on the West Coast.
But it does mean that NBC News now has to reconfigure the host chairs for both the 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. hours.
Since Kelly’s exit, a rotation of “Today” regulars, including Craig Melvin, Sheinelle Jones, Dylan Dreyer, Al Roker and Jenna Bush Hager, have filled in during her former hour, with no decision yet on permanent co-hosts.
Even though the third hour of “Today” is in a state of flux, audience levels have been rising since the departure of Kelly, whose hard-edged style was alienating to many morning viewers. Nor have the changes hurt the “Today” flagship from 7 to 9 a.m., co-anchored by Savannah Guthrie and Kotb, which has been the most-watched network morning show in recent months, according to Nielsen, passing ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Bush Hager, the daughter of former President George W. Bush, is considered the leading candidate to join Kotb at 10 a.m. She is a “Today” viewer favorite and her profile increased recently during coverage of the death of her grandfather, former President George H.W. Bush.
With four months before Gifford’s exit, NBC News will have time to get viewers acclimated to her successor.
Gifford made a major comeback when NBC News expanded “Today” to a fourth hour to capitalize on its massive popularity at the time and paired her with Kotb.
The singer-actress became a daytime TV sensation on the syndicated hit “Live With Regis and Kathie Lee” from 1988 to 2000 after launching on local New York station WABC three years earlier.
Gifford became a polarizing figure as she was accused of using sweatshop labor in the offshore factories that manufactured her clothing line. She also suffered through public humiliation when the tabloid press reported on her husband Frank Gifford’s infidelity after viewers had been hearing her effusively describe on air their marital bliss.
But audiences welcomed her back when she was paired with Kotb and turned the “Today” fourth hour into a freewheeling chat fest, often over glasses of wine which gave the program an air of decadence.
“The reason I stayed 11 years is because I love everybody so much,” Gifford said as she made the announcement.
Kotb wept. “The minute you stepped into my life with both feet, everything changed,” said Kotb, who became a morning TV star while working alongside Gifford.