Host Matt Lauer has held his post at Today for the past 20 years, but his long run does not make him well-liked. Personal and professional missteps have plagued the star. Ratings plummeted after former Fox News darling Megyn Kelly joined the show, but what some call the Lauer costar curse could bring her down. We looked into why people hate Lauer so much and whether Kelly could go down for it.
He keeps a struggling industry afloat — sort of
Nielsen ratings show that about 13 million people on average watch one of the three morning shows, with 4 million watching Today. That number is 10 million fewer viewers than watch the evening news on the big three. Since 2008, Today has lost 17% of its viewers. Younger, more affluent viewers jump ship first, taking advertising dollars with them. That puts a heavy burden to succeed on the anchors in the morning chairs. It also means Lauer and his costars bring in big bucks.
“The most dangerous seat in television news,” one industry insider told Vanity Fair, “seems to be next to Matt Lauer.” He’s weathered storm after storm at the company, and there’s a reason. One former NBC executive explained that Lauer has to stay too big to fail. “If Matt Lauer dropped dead tomorrow, there is no heir apparent. [That’s] why Matt can drive the price of what they pay him,” he said. That price is sizable.
Lauer brings in big bucks for a telling reason
According to Vanity Fair, Lauer serves as one of the highest-paid men in TV news. He has a contract for $25 million per year through at least 2018. Business Insider noted that Kelly makes upwards of $15 million per year at NBC. That makes her the second-highest-paid member of the Today staff. Only Lauer out-earns her.
She turned down an offer to stay at Fox for $100 million, which begs the question: Why? The network might be offering Kelly big bucks to groom her for Lauer’s eventual seat, while he rakes it in because he carries the network. That said, Lauer’s history points to one reason why Kelly might not succeed.
Ann Curry’s departure says something about her co-host
According to New York Magazine, former Today co-host Ann Curry left largely because of her chemistry with Lauer. Viewers and industry analysts both noticed their failure to gel, sources told the magazine.
“Lauer looked awkward and unhappy next to her — a situation that Lauer himself had also diagnosed. He openly complained about her to NBC staffers and to [former executive producer Jim] Bell.”
After Curry left, Lauer’s mean streak came out in full force. At one point, Lauer, Savannah Guthrie, and Al Roker interviewed the women’s Olympic rowing team about a rowing tradition which involves tossing a teammate in the water after a race.
“The tradition here in New York is, you throw her in the Hudson River,” Lauer said. Roker fired back, “Which is different than our tradition, which is to throw one of us under the bus.” Ouch.
That’s not the last time Lauer showed his true colors.
He dissed his new costar, too
Page Six recently reported that Lauer threw Kelly under those same wheels. After disastrous segments with the cast of the rebooted Will & Grace and with Jane Fonda, A-list celebrities have run from appearing on Kelly’s segment.
When someone made a comment about it to Lauer, he said he “gets it.” He called Megyn Kelly Today — her portion of the morning empire — “ a big problem for [the network]. Lauer’s personal spats aren’t the only issues he’s had on Today. He also dropped a few balls, professionally. Some of those had a large impact on the 2016 presidential election, and solidified Lauer’s place in the public consciousness.
‘But her emails’ — How Lauer hurt Clinton’s chances
When Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump faced off in a “commander-in-chief forum,” the network tapped Lauer as interviewer. Each one spent 30 minutes with Lauer, back-to-back. As Fortune reported, viewers did not appreciate Lauer’s treatment of the candidates.
He spent 10 minutes asking Clinton about her emails and rushed her — asking her to answer “as briefly as you can” —when she tried to respond on how she would handle ISIS. That went down very poorly with the American public. Political pundit Norman Ornstein tweeted, “Lauer interrupted Clinton’s answers repeatedly to move on. Not once for Trump.” He called it “tough to be a woman running for president.” Lauer also rubbed viewers the wrong way with his handling of Trump.
Did Lauer hand Trump the presidency?
Vanity Fair noted how Lauer failed to challenge Trump when he spouted his now-ubiquitous untruths. The Huffington Post also noted that the moderator did not ask Trump about some of the controversial statements he made in the past. Maggie Haberman, the New York Time’s presidential campaign correspondent, tweeted, “Clinton got tougher questions, but also got visibly irritated and defensive. Trump got mostly softballs.”
While Lauer did get tough with Trump on some issues, he largely pussyfooted around the candidate. That set a low bar for his success, and a much higher one for Clinton’s. Lauer’s handling of the debate demonstrated something important not only about himself, but the media as a whole.
The moderator failed, but so did the network
An NBC executive speaking to CNN anonymously called Lauer’s moderation “a disaster.” His failure to prepare properly may have had something to do with it. New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik wrote that Lauer appeared “unprepared on specifics of military and foreign policy. He performed like a soldier sent on a mission without ammunition, beginning with a disorganized offensive, ending in a humiliating retreat.”
As Vanity Fair put it, Lauer’s treatment made it seem as though Clinton’s use of a private email server was serious. He made it look as dire, if not more so than, Trump’s praise of Vladimir Putin, his disappointment that the U.S. didn’t steal Iraq’s oil, and his bad-mouthing of NATO. The bar Lauer set for Trump’s performance didn’t win him the presidency, but it didn’t hurt either. His heir apparent had similar issues with Trump, viewers may remember.
Is Megyn Kelly the new Lauer?
“It was all about replacing Matt Lauer in a couple of years,” an insider told Vanity Fair. “They want to protect the Today show and they will build the Today show around her.” So far though, Kelly’s performance makes her even less likable than Lauer.
“More than anything, [hiring Kelly] seemed to represent an act of faith in what high-profile talent, rather than mission or content, can accomplish: star power as business model,” that magazine posited.
Kelly appears to lean heavily on her co-anchors to keep her show afloat, Variety reported. According to Nielsen data, the show started down 12% in total viewers in week one. It slid 24% in week two, and fell 23% in week three, compared to the same time last fall. That represents a bad sign for Kelly.
Her struggling show reveals something
America doesn’t like Kelly any more than Lauer, according to her new show. The Ringer revealed that Kelly as “the future of NBC” doesn’t look so bright.
“For most of its disenchanted anchors, Fox News makes for a miserable diaspora. There is no bigger, better life after Fox News,” that publication noted. “At best, there’s obscurity. And the worst-case scenario is the string of petty humiliations that Kelly now faces daily.”
Ratings aren’t the only thing in free-fall. The internet has also taken her on. Jezebel recently launched a new blog series, “Megyn Kelly Today, Today,” It calls that feature “a new daily column in which we will share the most memorable things that happened on Megyn Kelly Today every morning until we are no longer able to watch Megyn Kelly Today without feeling like there will be no tomorrow.”
Whether there is for Kelly remains to be seen. If her ratings — and popularity — keep falling, Lauer might outlast her too, likability aside.
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