NEW YORK – It’s rarely a good sign when morning television hosts are painfully bantering about whether they are keeping their jobs.
That’s where Willie Geist and Natalie Morales found themselves during the most difficult week for NBC’s “Today” show in two years. At its end, an NBC News executive was fired after two months on the job and the network was tamping down reports of mutinies, firings and transfers at the lucrative morning franchise.
It was an unwanted reminder of the ugly firing of Ann Curry from “Today” in 2012, which helped ABC’s rival “Good Morning America” fly past NBC to the top of the morning heap.
“It’s reopening the same wound,” said Shelley Ross, a veteran producer who ran morning shows at ABC and CBS.
Now NBC News is searching again for an executive to oversee its most important broadcast.
It was considered a coup when NBC lured Jamie Horowitz from ESPN for a newly created job as “Today” brand manager. Horowitz wasn’t to concern himself with filling four hours of television a day, but to look at the big picture. “Today” was no longer in a free fall with viewers but hadn’t made appreciable progress narrowing ABC’s lead.
By all accounts, he was in the midst of studying and creating a plan for the show’s future.
The first sign of trouble came with a tabloid report of feuding between Morales and colleague Tamron Hall. That had to anger NBC News President Deborah Turness, who was burned by how the dismissal of David Gregory from “Meet the Press” played out in an ugly public fashion.
A week ago, Turness announced that Horowitz was out, telling her staff in a memo that she was convinced that it was “not the right fit.”
That prompted a flurry of anonymous reports describing sinking morale and backbiting at the show, even an intercession by Matt Lauer when he heard of proposed changes. When it culminated in a story that Geist and Morales were being fired, presumably an idea that predated Horowitz’s ouster, Turness issued a strongly worded statement supporting the current “Today” cast.
“In response to the false rumors that have been circulated about our anchor team, NBC wants to be absolutely clear,” Turness said. “The rumors are wrong – period. This is the team we are committed to.”
On-air personnel issues are particularly touchy on morning television, which creates an illusion of “family” with viewers.
So it felt like an uncomfortable Thanksgiving family dinner table when Hall, Morales and Al Roker gathered around the anchor desk the day after the debunked report appeared. Geist was onscreen from Brooklyn, where he was doing a report.
“When I didn’t see you this morning when I walked in, being your usual diva self, I thought you were gone,” Hall said to Geist.
“Natalie and I walked in yesterday, looked at each other and said, what are you doing here?” Geist said.
For Turness, who has been on the job for more than a year, the episode could cut one of two ways: She’s a strong boss who moved quickly when it was clear something wasn’t working, or she made a disastrous personnel choice.
“It depends on her relationship with her management,” said Richard Wald, a former network news executive now teaching at Columbia University. “There isn’t a simple answer.”
“Today” should concentrate on fixing the show, and that doesn’t mean casting anchors aside, Ross said.
NBC News will now look for a new “Today” brand manager, with the Horowitz episode sure to leave questions in the minds of potential applicants: Will I really have the freedom to make changes? If it comes down to my opinion versus a powerful anchor’s, do I really have a chance?
“You have to have the sense that you’re good at what you do,” Wald said. “That requires a bit of ego. The people who are looking at this kind of work say, ‘I won’t make those mistakes. I'll be successful.’ ”