NBC has problems coming and going.
In the morning, “Good Morning America” is outpointing them routinely in ratings and “demos”; in late night the leakage of “So Long Jay in 2014” stories has resulted in Leno’s taking potshots at NBC management every night that have been funny and sharp enough to cause a reported compulsory meal at which Leno was entreated by network brass to cease and desist.
Which, of course, he didn’t do. Fat chance he would. Nor would any late night fixture. Biting the hand that feeds you has been jolly good fun for the 11:30 p.m. wiseguys ever since Jack Paar tried to get away with a bathroom joke. Carson did it all the time. So did Letterman. So did Conan O’Brien (when, in an act of legendary incompetence, former NBC blunderer Jeff Zucker installed his fellow Harvard man O’Brien in “The Tonight Show” chair, only to incur catastrophic results).
That, one can’t help saying, is what TV executives are for. If, as a class, America spares its traditionally most errant managerial buffoons, then there is no hope for American irreverence at all. We should all be bleating like sheep.
If I were an NBC stockholder, I’d have two words – above all – for NBC executives: SHUT UP. Don’t talk to anybody in the press for at least six months. Neither confirm or deny. Let your faltering shows and your major stars speak for themselves.
You know how worried NBC is about the “Today” show when the show spends eight minutes of Monday air time for an interview with filmmaker John Ziegler about his upcoming film in defense of the late Penn State football god Joe Paterno who, says Ziegler, died in disgrace over his assistant Jerry Sandusky and, unlike Sandusky, never had his day in court.
Included in those eight minutes were snippets of jailhouse phone interviews with Sandusky, who’s a near certainty to spend the rest of his born days behind bars for child molestation. To hear Sandusky on the phone laughing about a witness’ conclusion that he was having sex with a young boy in the shower is to hear about as loathsome and nauseating a sound as you’ll ever hear on breakfast TV.
Ziegler, to be clear, isn’t trying to exonerate Sandusky but rather Paterno, defrocked ex-saint of American sports who ran afoul of public opinion because of predictable abhorrence of what his assistant coach Sandusky had done. At issue were utterly unavoidable – and familiar – matters for Paterno of “what did he know and when did he know it?”
It is that, said filmmaker Ziegler, that he spent a year of his life trying to investigate with his film, even though Paterno’s family has publicly stated its opposition to releasing recordings of Sandusky interviews in any connection with the late football legend.
Ziegler calls the Paterno family’s attitude “sad and heart-rending to me” but who on earth could blame them? This truly loathsome human being (you had to hear Sandusky’s laughter – however out of context it was presented – to believe it) has already done more than enough to destroy the reputation of the boss who was, for so long, the sports world’s model of coaching sainthood.
Let those who question Matt Lauer’s worth to “Today” spit into the wind about his many, many millions in salary. He is the very model of what a morning news host should be: able to talk, within a mere matter of minutes, to a filmmaker who’s made a film about one of the ugliest news stories of the decade, and then to magician David Copperfield and some aspiring young magicians he’s sponsoring. Lauer was aggressive and tough as nails with filmmaker Ziegler, tender as can be with the aspirant magicians.
See, by the way, Joe Hagan’s revealing Lauer cover story in New York Magazine to learn how agonizing the show’s slide has been for Lauer – including, by the way, his flirtation with ABC.
Lauer is not the problem with “Today.” Nor is fellow “Today” fixture Al Roker. Relative newcomer Savannah Guthrie, on the other hand, seems almost all attractive competence, which isn’t solely the point with network morning shows at all. A full blast of either Rokeresque goofiness or personality (or both) is needed from one of the women on the show. When it’s not there, the show has a problem.
As it does, right now.
“Good Morning America” isn’t really a better show than “Today.” If you want good morning TV, you watch what Charlie Rose and Gayle King are doing over on CBS. But “GMA” is infinitely cannier about getting the audience it needs. When, for instance, Monday’s “GMA” interviewed Stephenie Meyer about her upcoming movie “The Host,” they had a line of her teen and post-teen readers behind Robin Roberts to fire their own questions at her.
Smart. Very smart. Not good, mind you, but clever for sure.
It isn’t “Today’s” fault if “GMA,” at the moment, has the most compelling continuing plot line in morning TV – one that America can’t help but love. While “Today” is still struggling with its banishment of Ann Curry, “GMA” has been through the illness of its beloved co-anchor Roberts as publicly as possible. When you’ve successfully made one of your on-air personalities a member of viewers’ families, you don’t hide their physical struggles from the public; you keep them on the air as much as the ailing journalist will tolerate.
And that’s what they did, for better or worse. Roberts’ illness and return to the airwaves are the kind of irresistible slice of life no competition can touch.
George Stephanopoulos – a refugee from the Clinton White House and campaign War Room – has become a genial ABC fixture. And, to be honest, I’ve been a huge fan of Roberts since she began at ESPN in 1990.
She has the same combination of tough journalistic competence and personal likability that Lauer has. When life itself put her through serious trials and tribulations, her audience became family. There is no higher success in morning TV.
Nothing is going to stop that audience from pulling for her. Nothing is going to undercut their loyalty.
“Today” is yesterday – through no fault of Lauer’s. So is “Tonight” – where the fault does belong to Leno.
What’s needed now at NBC is for every NBC executive who has forgotten the worth of public loyalty to one’s employees to watch Roberts solidify love for “GMA” every morning. And learn.
And, as I said, to shut up about all their oh-so-clever plans to goose their limping 18-to-49 demographics.
The only people likely to be impressed are the callowest of their fellow media functionaries.