For the second time in less than three years, NBC’s ratings woes have led to the unceremonious dumping of a prominent on-air host, this time “Today’s” Ann Curry.
On Thursday, the 55-year-old newswoman tearfully said goodbye to viewers with her co-host Matt Lauer, who will remain on the show, at her side. “For all of you who saw me as a groundbreaker, I’m sorry I couldn’t carry the ball over the finish line, but, man, I did try,” Curry said in a wavering voice as she marked her last day atop TV’s No. 1 morning news show.
Curry’s swift exit — coming just days after a report that executives were preparing her ouster — was reminiscent of the mess surrounding “The Tonight Show"in 2010, when a previous NBC regime tossed aside host Conan O’Brienafter a nightly 10 p.m. show with Jay Leno bombed and local stations bitterly complained. Leno regained the 11:35 p.m. “Tonight” perch and O’Brien decamped to cable outlet TBS.
This time, the ratings issue looms even larger. “Today"has lost ground this year to its archrival, ABC’s"Good Morning America,"with the latter even winning several weeks this spring for the first time since the mid-1990s. With NBC’s prime-time lineup mostly in shambles beyond its singing contest “The Voice,"the Comcast-owned network can ill afford to lose the trophy for most-watched morning show, which is estimated to contribute more than $500 million in ad revenue to the bottom line. Curry, who began co-hosting just one year ago following the exit of Meredith Vieira, made the most convenient — if not necessarily most justifiable — target.
“NBC hasn’t had much to crow about in recent years, but ‘Today’ has been a stable ratings-maker and moneymaker,” said Jeffrey McCall, a communications professor at DePauw University. “NBC felt it couldn’t be patient to see how the Curry-Lauer arrangement might play out in the long run.
“NBC’s troubled prime-time schedule is key to the network’s overall problems,” McCall added. “So few viewers in prime time means there are fewer people who will have ‘Today’ on in the morning when they turn the television back on. The weak prime-time lineup is also ineffective as a promotional platform to hype ‘Today’ for the next morning.”
Curry seemed a natural fit for the job after Vieira’s departure a year ago. One of the most prominent Asian Americans in the news business, she had worked her way up as a correspondent, “Dateline” co-host and “Today” news reader. Her cosmopolitan background (she spent part of her childhood in Japan) gave her a sophistication and keen interest in world affairs that made her something of a rarity in the short-attention-span world of morning TV.
But the rumors started flying as “Today’s” once-grand ratings lead over “GMA” began to crumble in recent months. Despite the warmth of Curry’s on-camera presence, Lauer seemed not to click with her the way he had with either Vieira or Katie Couric, who left “Today” to anchor the “CBS Evening News” and is now headed for a syndicated talk show on ABC.
Unhappy insiders, perhaps worried that their own jobs were on the line, began to plant negative stories. In March, the media site Gawker published a particularly vitriolic story headlined: “Ann Curry Will Be Fired As Co-Host of the Today Show Because Everybody Hates Her.” That item helped seal the image of Curry as damaged goods and pave the way for her ouster. (The network is kicking her upstairs to an NBC News job heading up a seven-person team covering big international stories for “NBC Nightly News,” “Today” and other outlets.)
Yet ridding themselves of Curry on “Today” may not give NBC executives the balm they seek — at least if the past is any indication. The network has not announced who will replace Curry, although most speculation centers on Savannah Guthrie, who currently hosts “Today’s” third hour (see accompanying story).
“Replacing Curry could move the needle or it could backfire; it’s a personality-driven show,” observed Brad Adgate, an analyst for ad firm Horizon Media in New York. “Last year Curry was the obvious successor to Vieira, nobody questioned it, viewers liked her — and look what happened.”
NBC has previous history with the peril of sudden change-ups for top-rated shows. In 1990, Deborah Norville replaced Jane Pauley as “Today” co-host, whereupon viewership quickly plummeted and critics came to see Norville as a young blond interloper. Leno, meanwhile, has yet to recover the audience levels he enjoyed at “Tonight” before the network’s disastrous game of musical chairs.
NBC can expect no quarter from its rivals during this transitional moment. On Thursday morning, the network delivered a news release touting “Today’s” ratings win for the week of June 18. Less than two hours later, ABC — which has made taking down “Today” a top priority — shot back with a release noting that during the second quarter of this year, “GMA” narrowed its ratings margin against NBC to the smallest in 17 years.