Peter Kramer/NBC
Mark Harris
April 05, 2013 AT 04:00 PM EDT

The search for the next host of Today feels like a reality competition series—with the lowest stakes imaginable and a thankless grand prize.

Last week, as the Today show’s agonizingly slow (and publicly denied) effort to expel Matt Lauer from its eco-system blistered open with stories in New York magazine and The New York Times, an old joke about academia—or maybe morning shows—came to mind: “Why is the infighting so vicious? Because the stakes are so low.” I’m not talking about money: This is, in network-ese, a “day-part” in which salaries are measured in the millions, ratings twitches in the tens of millions, and annual revenue in the half-billion dollars that Today is said to bring NBC. But culturally, who is going to replace Matt Lauer no longer amounts to a hill of beans except to the people involved, and the slightly less than 2 percent of Americans who watch the show. This sort of changing of the guard is often described as a tectonic shift, but if so, it’s an earthquake that’s happening on a tiny planet populated by stick figures inside a snow globe.

Back in the days of rabbit-ear antennae and Walter Cronkite—when viewers had a slightly more naive trust that what we saw on TV was real—the replacement of a morning-show host, an evening-news anchorman (emphasis on man), or a late-night comic (emphasis still on man) meant something about what the networks thought good old unfragmented “America” wanted to see. But in today’s (let alone Today’s) world, nobody’s that innocent.

As a night owl, I’m no expert in the mild tonal variations of early-a.m. tele-vision, but I do understand that Today’s 4 or 5 million viewers want their show precisely calibrated to their waking mood. It’s sentimental, though, to pretend that the people on TV every morning are, as ads suggest, part of your family, or even a family, as in “the NBC News family,” or any kind of family except the Tolstoyan “unhappy in its own way” version. The people on Today are not a family but an assemblage of highly telegenic millionaires who have a unique ability to look worried when the news is worrisome, enthralled by recipes they will never cook themselves, and fascinated by absolutely everyone who has something to talk about for exactly four minutes. Morning-show viewers, a savvy bunch, understand they’re watching a mix of newscast, variety show, infotainment update, talk show, and human-interest magazine, and they treat it possessively, as the biggest, most expensive, slowest-moving reality soap opera on television. That can be bad news for the main “characters,” whose fates are often determined by fan–fiction-style notions of who they’re supposed to be.

In a way, it was inevitable that Lauer—formerly Nice Young Matt Lauer, brought in to solve the ’90s problem of Cranky Arrogant Bryant Gumbel—is now known as Cranky Arrogant Matt Lauer, soon to give way to Nice Youngish Anderson Cooper or Ryan Seacrest or someone who market research determines will not put everyone in a pre-commute bad mood. Ironically, Lauer’s greatest crime seems to have been not liking someone viewers didn’t like—Ann Curry, a reporter whose rather exhausting intensity did not sit well while folks were trying to get the kids off to school. The few times I watched Curry, the problem was unmistakable: Instead of the refreshing cup of half-caf that people want their morning-show anchors to be, she was a syringe full of adrenaline rammed into the sternum. That works when you’re interviewing survivors of third-world genocide, but not when you’re asking someone how it felt to be eliminated from The Voice. Lauer apparently agreed with viewers—but did so visibly enough to seem mean.

The biggest unspoken rule Lauer violated was this: He forgot to pretend everything was fine. It wasn’t his job to dislike Ann Curry; it was America’s. By failing to have chemistry with his co-anchor, Lauer broke character; he declined to be the fictional construct viewers wanted him to be. And that’s why the nominally high-stakes contest to succeed him seems so small. Playing the replacement Likable Dad Puppet—but only for as long as people think you seem nice—-suddenly sounds like the worst job in television.


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