LIFER MARCH 19, 2013
There are a very small number of jobs where it just doesn't matter if you're not that well-liked. Solitary-confinement prison guard, maybe. Large-scale media or movie mogul. Solo-rig long-haul trucker.
Morning-show host is not one of those jobs. And as Matt Lauer has found out recently, charm is not automatically renewing. As The New York Times reported last week, the once-adored co-host of the "Today Show," who less than a year ago was seen as such a foundational part of the franchise that NBC gave him a $25 million per year contract now finds himself at the wrong end of a rumor about a shakeup at the show, which has lately faced suboptimal ratings and plummeting ad revenue. (He is, however, being mentioned as a possible "Jeopardy" host.) "What matters most is the anchor connection to the audience; what we need to work on is the connection," executives told employees at a meeting last month, according to Times reporter Brian Stelter.
"Connection," it emerges, was a barely veiled stand-in for Matt Lauer, who has seen his Q score (a popularity ranking that's watched closely by TV execs) tumble to just nine, down from a solid 19 in 2011. The Q score reflects a combination of people a) knowing your name and b) liking what it connotes. It's a bitter pill for him to swallow. In his salad days, Lauer had a higher Q score even than his popular co-anchor Katie Couric.
It is a lesson, perhaps, in the futility of trying to hang on to one very high-profile job in the era of meteoric rises to (and falls from) fame. But more than that, Lauer's plummet is a lesson in what it means to be good company for the viewer who is getting dressed in the morning, or packing lunches, or searching for keys. It is not enough to be handsome and suave, to be witty, and to be a good reporter. It helps to be all of those things, of course, but most of all, you must project an air of being honestly honored at the idea of being the background to all those quotidian tasks. The evening anchor can still, on a very good day, imagine himself the voice of God; the bubblier types who wake up at the crack of dawn need to aspire to being a voice half-listened to.
That is a hard job description to reconcile with a $25 million paycheck. And with years of stardom behind you: When he hit the big time in the nineties, Lauer was a genuine heartthrob. New York described him, in 1994, as "the hunk-of-the-moment," but also as possessing an "almost uncanny lack of hubris" and ordinary guy-ness. By 2003, he seemed to have acclimated himself enough to celebrity to tell Palm Beach magazine that the top ten things he liked about Palm Beach included "the sushi boats at Echo," and "the selection of Ermenegildo Zegna clothes at Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus." (It wasn't until number ten that he mentioned weather.)
Still, even if Lauer had acquired the unfortunate sheen, so endemic to successful New York men, of someone who had formerly been under-aware of his charms and was making up for lost time, it wasn't until the show purged Ann Curry last summer that viewers suddenly realized all that they had ceased to like about him. Lauer had never had chemistry with Curry, who came from an international reporting background. She might simply have lacked the sparkle for the job, but it's also possible that Lauer didn't like, suddenly, being cast as the fluffy one. Over the years, he'd developed a bit of a complex about being considered a serious journalist. This had led to some good TV moments—his famous George Bush grilling, for instance—but also to a distinct air of disdain for, and discomfort about, some of the lighter fare that comes with the territory on morning TV.
"Matt has, sort of, I don't want to describe it as highbrow, but sensitivity about his journalistic credentials. He only wants to go after what he perceives as really important stories," one "Today Show" employee told New York last year. "Did he want to do Kim Kardashian filing for divorce? Absolutely not. He hates the seedy, gossipy stuff—but he has to do it." The genius of the Katie Courics and Meredith Vieras of the world is that they don't give off an air of having to do it, they telegraph wanting to do it—without sacrificing their ability to do the harder-hitting interviews the format occasionally calls for. We don't watch morning TV to be made to feel embarrassed about the trivial things we want to know about.
The Curry purging was a public one. Most of the time, the general public doesn't care overly much about media gossip, but Curry wept on air on her last show, and Lauer was terribly, physically uncomfortable. She didn't hug him. It took just a quick Google search for a "Today Show" viewer—many of them women—to determine that Lauer had pushed her out. The rumors included speculation that part of his new contract had included the stipulation that Curry would be gone.
If you're a middle-aged woman in the post-recession era, or a working mother, you might be more attuned than average to the unfairness of hiring and firing practices, and Curry's very public dismissal might have triggered certain fears. Lauer's unctuous air of self-satisfaction afterwards, in the equally unsuccessful Savannah Guthrie era, hasn't helped. It turns out that the American public likes kindness in our celebrities, more than one might expect. Pop singer Taylor Swift's Q score has similarly sunk in recent years, even as her star has risen. Her famous dressing over of exes via song lyrics apparently hasn’t sat well with the public. She, like Lauer, has made the mistake of appearing to consider other people disposable stepping-stones to her success.
Whatever happens at "Today," Lauer won’t disappear, of course. The "Jeopardy" gig might actually be a perfect one for him. He'd get to craft a persona of omniscience, and his air of knowing it all would become an asset, not a drawback. And, unlike, say, a Vanna White-assisted “Wheel of Fortune” gig, there’s no need for him to share any of the show's starmaking juice with someone else.