Morning news lost its primary source of personality when Bryant Gumbel retired from the Today show (NBC, weekdays, 7-9 a.m.) on Jan. 3. For 15 years, Gumbel had been providing as much drama as is permitted in his field, doing it by being serious when the job usually calls for perkiness and being regularly aggressive in hard-news interviewing style when common wisdom holds that you should just lie back and be a nice guy. Gumbel’s penchant for grumpiness could be irritating: There were many mornings when you couldn’t help wondering why the devil he was bothering to interview some lame movie star so clearly beneath him. But this attitude took on resonance over the years, and when you add the fact that no other African American had been seen so three-dimensionally for so long on television, Gumbel came off very well indeed — an intelligent skeptic who knew that, beloved or detested, character counts for something among TV viewers.
So now the question is, what is the character of Gumbel’s replacement, former Today news anchor Matt Lauer? Well, let me put it this way: If Gumbel was the Sinatra of his genre — authoritative, moody, and not to be messed with — Lauer is the Jack Jones of morning television: lightweight but easy to listen to, a tad too slick for his own good but perfectly likable.
The Today show has a rocky history of anchor replacement. I still get hot flashes recalling the stories of All About Eve viciousness that ensued when Deborah Norville usurped Jane Pauley in 1989. Compared with that, Lauer already seems not only relaxed and assured but well liked by his couch mates. Katie Couric went so far as to sing ”Welcome, Matt” to the melody of the Welcome Back, Kotter theme on The Rosie O’Donnell Show, an assignment so far beyond the call of duty, I wondered whether Today executive producer Jeff Zucker had dusted off a Norville hex doll and put a spell on our Katie.
So far, Lauer has only gotten flustered when forced to referee segments in which his all-too-frequently-seen CNBC colleague Geraldo Rivera deafeningly debates anyone who doesn’t think O.J. did it; the slim, soft-spoken Lauer isn’t built for these kinds of hokey TV wrassling matches. And right now, it’s difficult to imagine him grilling weaselly congresspersons with Gumbel-weight force — or indeed, whether he’ll prove anywhere near as well prepared and quick on follow-up questions as his mentor. But I suppose we have to give Lauer time to lose his waxy local-news sheen. (An unexpected benefit of Lauer’s move to anchor, by the way, is his temporary Today news-desk replacement, Ann Curry, who not only reads the headlines with intelligent comprehension — all you can ask of a talking head — but also reveals with some regularity the best wry smile on TV today.)
The one thing that makes the Today show a chore to watch isn’t Lauer’s fault anyway. It’s that damn window onto Rockefeller Center, where clusters of tourists stand with signs imparting brilliant apercus such as ”We Love Matt!” It’s the a.m. equivalent of NBC’s p.m. hellishness: the nightly prodding of Jay Leno’s audience into rabble-rousers. Even when the blue wall goes up behind the Today anchors (the better to conduct an interview in peace), you can still see the vague outlines of restless passersby. It’s impossibly distracting; I always wonder who’s going to be the first disgruntled nutball to crash through the window screaming ”Chicago Bulls!” or ”Love ya, Mom!”
When that day comes, however, I’m sure that Lauer will handle it well, perhaps pushing Couric under the sofa for safety, or pulling weatherman Al Roker in front of them both as a shield. I’d expect nothing less from the man who succeeds Bryant Gumbel.