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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.

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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.

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