In defense of Matt Lauer: 'Today' will be hurt if he leaves

For me, reports of a phone call to CNN anchor Anderson Cooper about taking Matt Lauer’s place on NBC’s "Today" show were the last, silly straw.

Lauer in March. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Much as I respect Cooper (and his ability to vault from trading quips with Kathy Griffin on New Year’s Eve to covering natural disasters overseas), the notion that he might replace Lauer seemed to defy logic.

Cooper’s syndicated daytime show was canceled due to disappointing ratings and his well-regarded prime time CNN show "Anderson Cooper 360" still struggles against Fox News Channel star Bill O’Reilly and whoever may be hosting MSNBC’s 8 p.m. hour (Chris Hayes, as of Monday).

Troubled as Lauer may be, he is still the biggest star on a program that’s earned about six times the viewers Cooper generated at 8 p.m. on CNN in February sweeps. So why would Cooper be a logical successor?

As rumors swirl that "Today"'s top man may be replaced amid a deluge of negative press, perhaps its time to take a moment to defend Matt Lauer. And, if necessary, NBC.

First, it’s worth noting that not every succession at "Today" has been so troubled. Katie Couric rose to smooth the implosion over Deborah Norville unseating Jane Pauley, Lauer ascended to replace Bryant Gumbel and Meredith Vieira jumped into Couric’s seat in ways that benefitted the program.

In Lauer and Couric’s case, both had appeared on "Today" in other capacities -- Lauer was the show’s news anchor and Couric subbed for Norville during her maternity leave -- while Vieira was already a daytime TV star thanks to her tenure on ABC’s "The View."

The key in every transition seemed to be muted resistance from the departing anchor (Norville, who says NBC prevented her from talking to the press, was replaced while on maternity leave; Gumbel embraced Lauer as a buddy and long-groomed successor, while Couric left NBC to host the "CBS Evening News"). And the transitions were necessary moves to create a more stable "Today" show family.

Much as critics grouse about overly sentimental anchor tributes and handoffs, they are crucial to maintaining the family atmosphere of morning shows, especially when the departing anchors have been on the program a long time (one of NBC’s biggest mistakes with the Curry transition, Norville told me later, was in shuffling her off with a five-minute goodbye that barely recognized her 15 years on the show.)

While some might argue Lauer’s image is tarnished to the point where a move must be made, I disagree. Just like Curry, he has fans who enjoy seeing him on the show, and there’s no way to appreciate how hard it is to do that job, until you see someone else doing it not quite so well.

"Today" show executive producer Don Nash makes that argument in an interview with TV Guide, saying a focus group noted the only thing that might make them stop watching "Today": "Every one of them said, 'If Matt Lauer were to leave,'" Nash noted. "Their opinions didn't square with what we had been reading in the papers and on websites."

It’s also worth noting that Lauer isn’t the only person who felt Curry was a bad fit as "Today" show co-anchor. Many critics, myself included, noticed a seeming difficulty with the live, spontaneous aspects of the job and her lack of chemistry with Lauer.

What may really hurt NBC is that they developed a model of grooming fill-in anchors and possible successors which may work too well -- ensuring that those personalities already a part of "Today"'s anchor family can’t bring the jolt of fresh perspective that the program needs now more than ever.

Right now, it seems "Today" is still more likely to be hurt by a Lauer departure than helped by it, particularly if his leaving seems involuntary.

So, despite the buzz about Anderson Cooper and Ryan Seacrest, "Today" may be better served shoring up Lauer’s image and taking on the herculean task of reinventing a show morning news viewers once made their top choice for 16 years running.

At least until the rumor about the next anchor comes along.

Previously: Ann Curry tells ‘Today’ show viewers, ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t carry the ball over the finish line’ | How race factors into the conversation about Ann Curry’s possible ouster from ‘Today’ Show | ‘Today’ show’s executive producer takes responsibility for Ann Curry’s departure


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