‘Top of the Morning’: happy & unhappy (TV) families

Today - 2012My interest in early morning television is limited — I’m more of a radio guy when getting ready for the day ahead — but Brian Stelter’s “Top of the Morning” (Grand Central Publishing) is a juicy and informative look behind the scenes at “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America” and the other shows on network and cable.

Stelter is a New York Times media reporter who can be accused of some overheated prose in places — the poor guy suffered the indignity of being panned in his own paper on Monday — but he tells a good story about the smiley, happy shows that serve up all of those personalities who pretend to love each other (and us) every weekday morning.

Reading about the adventures of Matt Lauer, Ann Curry, Robin Roberts, Katie Couric and the other morning show personalities is like reading about movies and Hollywood stars — casting and “chemistry” is crucial, and if a formula works, everyone makes huge salaries.

There is an escapist kick in this sort of non-fiction show biz book similar to the fun of reading Jackie Collins. The people are so rich and so far removed from our own lives that we can’t get too upset on their behalf when bad things happen.

Yes, Ann Curry was treated abominably by her bosses at “The Today Show” but she was earning five million dollars a year when she got the ax (of course, that was chicken feed compared to the 25 million dollar annual salary of Matt Lauer, her co-host and eventual enemy).

You would think that by now, most TV viewers would be wised up to the phoniness of the bright-eyed chatter coming at them from studios in New York City at an hour when most people are just getting out of bad. But, as Stelter makes it clear, millions of people still love these vestiges of a kinder, gentler era in America (and TV).topofthemorning2

Fans of the morning chat shows develop extreme loyalty to individual hosts and host pairings that is not unlike the devotion of earlier generations to TV soaps. As Stelter points out in the sections of the book about “The Today Show,” the NBC series rode high in the ratings for many years due to the strong on-screen chemistry of Lauer and Katie Couric, and then Lauer and Meredith Vieira.

Curry was part of the successful broadcast for 15 years but only in a supporting role as news reader and occasional fill-in co-host. Still, because she was such a familiar face on “The Today Show” many fans were outraged when she was treated so shabbily by NBC.

The rise of “Good Morning America,” Stelter notes, was due in large part to the assembling of a warmer “family” of personalities, including entertainment reporter Lara Spencer and weatherman Sam Champion. When star Robin Roberts was stricken with a very serious illness, it was a personal tragedy to be sure, but it also added drama to the broadcast, and an outpouring of sympathy from viewers.

The weird mix of reality and the TV business converges in the book when the first big surge in the ratings for “GMA” coincides with Roberts’ diagnosis (which she kept secret for weeks so as not to dampen the excitement of her bosses and most of her co-workers). Some outside observers might question the taste of ABC in generating so much publicity when its ailing star went public, but the truth is Roberts’ fans wanted to know what was happening, each step of the way.

Stelter had more on-the-record sources at “GMA” but the best parts of the book deal with the Matt Lauer/Ann Curry disaster. The network executives were so fearful of losing either or both of their stars that they refused to deal with the situation until it was too late.

The dislike of Curry within “The Today Show” family was so strong — seemingly, more for the ratings dip she helped to cause than for any personal differences — that her eventual exit was terribly bungled. Instead of the lengthy tributes her predecessors had received on their way out, there was no mention of Curry’s exit until the last minutes of her final show (below).

Curry’s emotionalism and the stony response of Lauer — sitting right next to her on a couch — stripped the phony family veneer off “The Today Show” and revealed the hotbed of office politics, TV ratings, and star egos viewers rarely get to see on the air.

Here’s Stelter’s description of how the moment played to a rival producer:

“The segment was the equivalent of finishing up a pleasant, two-hour family dinner by saying, ‘Oh, by the way, I forgot to mention: Mom and I are getting a divorce. While you were sleeping last night she packed up all of her stuff. There’s a cab waiting outside to take her away right now. Say goodbye, kids…OK, now that we’ve done that who wants dessert?!’”

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Joe Meyers