— During a time of upheaval among network news talent, NBC is risking half a billion dollars on Ann Curry, who will replace Meredith Vieira as co-anchor of NBC’s No. 1-rated morning show “Today.”
In an emotional on-air announcement Monday morning, Vieira confirmed that after five years she is passing the torch to Curry, 54, who will officially assume the co-anchor chair alongside Matt Lauer June 9. Vieira, who will continue to contribute to NBC News in an as-yet-unspecified position, explained she wants to spend more time with her family, particularly her husband Richard, who has multiple sclerosis.
In a news conference later, Lauer did his best to squelch recent speculation that he was considering leaving the show when his contract expires in 2012. “I will be here for a long time,” he said. “You’re going to get tired of asking that question.”
If Lauer’s statement turns out to be true, that’s good news for NBC, which, while being pummeled in the ratings during prime time, dominates the nation’s TV screens in the morning. Network executives would not welcome yet another changing of the guard for their flagship morning show, which has ranked first among the major networks for the past 800 consecutive weeks in the time slot.
With more than 14 years as the news anchor on “Today,” Curry offers viewers a familiar face at a time when other morning shows are introducing new talent. Earlier this year, CBS replaced the staff of its “Early Show” with a team lead by Chris Wragge and Erica Hill. On Monday, Lara Spencer of “The Insider” and Josh Elliott of ESPN joined the team at “Good Morning America.”
Last year, “Today” generated more than $500 million in ad revenue for NBC and Comcast. By comparison, ABC’s “Good Morning America” earned $314 million and CBS’ “The Early Show” earned $178 million.
Still, “Good Morning America” has been slowly closing in on “Today.” According to Nielsen Co, “Today’s” lead over its ABC competitor is down to 700,000 total viewers, the smallest number since 2005.
“We are incredibly blessed with some real talent and someone so dedicated,” NBC News President Steve Capus said of Curry.
Capus added that Curry’s level of commitment can surprise even him. Over the weekend, she called him at home, not about the announcement of her new position, but how to handle coverage of Osama bin Laden’s death. “I thought, OK, this is a different era,” he said.
Transitions between anchors can often be bumpy for networks — even at “Today.” When Jane Pauley took over for Barbara Walters in 1976, ratings initially dropped before they stabilized. And Pauley’s replacement, Deborah Norville, barely lasted a year before Katie Couric successfully stepped in for her.
“They’re making a choice that No. 1 usually makes: to have as little disruption to a successful formula as possible,” said Richard Wald, a former NBC executive and Columbia Journalism School professor. “They’re not looking to reinvent morning television. They’re more constrained by their desire to maintain the audience they’ve got.”
Curry’s appointment led to other reshuffling as well. Natalie Morales, who currently co-hosts the third hour of “Today,” will take over Curry’s former job as news anchor. Meanwhile, NBC White House correspondent Savannah Guthrie will fill Morales’ spot. (Al Roker remains as the program’s weather forecaster.)
At the news conference, Curry, whose promotion marks the first handoff of an anchor spot since Comcast Corp. took over as NBC’s parent company in January, looked forward to her new post.
“I’m jumping into this job with both feet, 100%,” she said. “And what that means is I want to be deeply involved in all our meetings and our discussions and in the broadcasts as well as on the air.”
She also pledged that she’ll continue to cover the same kinds of stories she’d been pursuing as news anchor. “I’m very, very proud to have been able to put this kind of reporting — human rights reporting, humanitarian reporting, reporting about genocide — on not only our network but on this particular broadcast.”
At the same news conference, Lauer acknowledged that he’d discussed the possibility of launching a new syndicated show with Couric, his former co-anchor, who recently announced that she’s leaving “CBS Evening News.” But he explained that his timetable didn’t match hers.
“It was just talk,” he said, “and that’s where we left it.”