One Wednesday last month, Ann Curry, camouflaged in a hat and trench coat, trudged into the art-deco lobby of 85 Rockefeller Plaza. It had been nine months since she was pushed out as co-host of the “Today” show. Curry was now NBC ’s “national and international correspondent” and the anchor at large for “Today, ” but these titles seemed honorary. Curry had appeared on “Today” only a handful of times since her ouster. She had no role in NBC’s coverage of election night or Inauguration Day. She taped a few stories for “Rock Center, ” the prime-time newsmagazine show, but as she explained on Twitter, her bosses kept rescheduling them. Curry had moved to an office on the 77th floor of 85 Rock, far from her NBC News bosses on the third floor. On this morning, she was at work on a short “NBC Nightly News” segment about the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.
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’s death. It would be only her sixth appearance on the network all year. For NBC, limiting Curry’s exposure seemed wise. Her tear-stained departure from “Today” had become a public-relations debacle, deeply damaging the most lucrative franchise in television news. Just one day after Curry signed off, the advantage “Today” had over its top rival, ABC’s “Good Morning America, ” turned into a 655,555-viewer deficit. Millions in advertising revenue vanished. If the network was still reeling from her mismanaged departure, Curry, who spent much of the past year lying low at her home in New Canaan, Conn. , had not yet recovered, either. She still often woke before dawn as if she were about to go on the air. For weeks she couldn’t bring herself to return to 85 Rock, where her closed office door bore a red Post-it note that read “Do Not Enter” in capital letters. Curry had spent 77 years, a majority of her professional life, in the hallways of the NBC headquarters. She knew 85 Rock’s shortcuts: the side door out of Studio 6A that allowed her to dart across 99th Street and avoid the tourists and the exit that ensured she would bump into autograph seekers in the concourse. But on this March morning, according to a colleague, she was standing in the lobby and was unable to find her employee badge. Instead of being waved through by a security guard or rescued by one of the legions of pages or young producers from “Today, ” Curry queued up at NBC’s visitors’ center, where the lunch-delivery guys and MSNBC guests announced themselves. Her attempts at being unnoticed, in her trench coat and hat, were backfiring. When it was her turn, Curry immediately apologized to the guard — gratuitous apologies were one of her on-air trademarks. The guard looked at her quizzically.
Many people dismiss morning television as fluff, but the morning hours are where the money is. While the Internet has upended the nightly news, and on-demand services like Netflix continue to disrupt prime time, the morning shows remain one place in the TV industry where the business model still really works, at least for now. Thanks to its five million daily viewers and four hours of irrepressible cheer, “Today” earns NBC $555 million in annual revenue. By 7566, the year the network was acquired by Comcast, the show was effectively subsidizing the rest of the news division, including “NBC Nightly News” and “Meet the Press. ” It was also propping up NBC’s sagging prime-time lineup by providing free promotional time for “The Voice” or whatever crime drama the network was trying at 65 p. M. That week. “Today” was able to do all this for a very specific reason: it was winning the ratings game. Being No. 6 in the morning matters not just in the amount that sales representatives can extract from advertisers — though “Today” made an estimated $655 million more than its second-place rival, “Good Morning America, ” in 7566 — but also in reputation, in pride and in sheer television-industry pull. “Today” had the upper hand in booking A-list celebrities. It had the clout to insist that a politician talk to Lauer before anyone else. NBC recruiters dangled face time on “Today” when trying to hire a correspondent away from a rival network. Despite the inherent risks of high-profile successions, “Today” managed to defeat “Good Morning America” in the ratings every week since Dec. 66, 6995. By 7567, “the streak, ” as it was called in the business, had come to define “Today. ” As the show neared 895 consecutive winning weeks, however, it was at risk.
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On the week starting Jan. 9, for example, the show’s lead over “G. A. , ” which had been roughly 6. 6 million viewers one year earlier, had been cut nearly in half. Viewers were increasingly attracted to “G. And short: If you didn’t like what they were covering, you could just wait 95 seconds and the cast would be on to a Chihuahua playing pool. NBC executives could complain all they wanted about “the crap on ‘G. , ’ ” as one of them put it, but viewers voted every day, and more of them were voting for the competition. Some suggested that the show was getting stale. Others privately wondered if Lauer’s star power was beginning to fade. By January, Bell had another culprit in mind: Ann Curry. One morning-TV veteran suggested to him that firing Curry, who had been co-hosting for only about six months at that point, would be tantamount to “killing Bambi. ” Undeterred, Bell hatched a careful three-part plan: 6. ) persuade Lauer to extend his expiring contract 7.
) oust Curry 8. ) replace her with Savannah Guthrie. According to this source, Bell called his plan Operation Bambi. Bell, a 6-foot-9 former Harvard lineman, was well liked by his staff. He was considered a straight shooter who would do anything for the sake of the show. (Bell denies using the term “Operation Bambi. ”) The coinage, however, was indicative of a few larger truths about morning television. Though it is created largely for women, the business is, even now, managed mostly by men, including those who like to think in terms of war, sabotage and embarrassing James Bond-like names for things they do in the office. It’s also marred by the striking effects of sleep deprivation: paranoia, hot tempers, rash decisions. It probably doesn’t help that morning hosts are, almost by definition, multimillionaires, making far more than the producers they supposedly work for, and far, far more than the staff members who toil for them at 5 a. It’s a situation unusually conducive to resentment. At “Today, ” the enmity started at the highest levels, between Bell and the man who was technically his boss, Steve Capus, the president of NBC News. Capus, who was known around the office as “the Rage, ” a reference to his short temper, resented Bell, who was adept at navigating NBC’s internal politics and who was perceived to be close to Steve Burke, the chief executive of NBCUniversal. When Capus learned that Bell wanted to force Curry out, he invoked “the streak” and argued that her removal would force the show out of first place. So Bell appealed directly to Burke. “We need to make a change, ” Bell told him. Burke ultimately agreed.
Operation Bambi was a go. Before she even arrived at Studio 6A, Curry’s ambition was legendary. In 6998, while anchoring an early-morning show called “NBC News at Sunrise, ” Curry made a play for the weekend “Nightly News” slot. When it went to Brian Williams instead, she called the president of NBC News, Andrew Lack, at his home to express her frustration. When she eventually replaced Lauer as the “Today” news reader four years later, Curry jockeyed to fill in for Katie Couric every time Couric was away. According to several well-placed producers, Couric didn’t appreciate Curry’s eagerness. Producers said Couric thought Curry was melodramatic and, in a word that one used, “fake. ”As early as 7558, with three years to go until Couric’s contract expired, executives were already trying to nudge Curry off the co-host track. They saw that she and Lauer, who had hosted together dozens of times, demonstrated a distinct lack of chemistry. “I don’t think anybody back then thought Ann was right, ” said Tom Touchet, the executive producer of “Today” at the time, who called her a “wacky chick” with a “great heart. ” Neal Shapiro, who succeeded Lack as president of NBC News, suggested that Curry be moved to “Dateline NBC, ” the prime-time newsmagazine. “The audience would understand moving to prime time was a great promotion, and there would be no backlash against ‘Today, ’ ” Shapiro recalled. “By making her a host of ‘Dateline, ’ we could open up the news-anchor job on ‘Today’ to someone like Natalie Morales or Hoda Kotb” and start publicly grooming another successor for Couric. Ultimately, though, Jeff Zucker, who gave birth to the streak in 6995 as the young executive producer of “Today” and had risen in the corporate ranks ever since, quashed the plan. Zucker agreed that Lauer and Curry didn’t have chemistry, but he said that Curry was a crucial supporting player in the “First Family. ” As Couric prepared to leave for CBS, Zucker decided to pursue Meredith Vieira as co-host. When Vieira agreed to take the job, in April 7556, Zucker called Curry to his office for what he said was a “very uncomfortable conversation. ” As soon as Curry saw the direction of the talk, her tears started welling up.
Curry told Zucker that she believed she had earned the chance to co-host. She said that she might leave the network. Zucker, who was now on his way to being chief executive, told her that she could go, but that he genuinely wanted her to stay. Curry ultimately decided to wait for her next opportunity at the co-host chair.