From “extreme underemployment” to the top of the morning at Today
By BroadCasting & Cable Staff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/19/2008 8:00:00 PM
On weekday mornings, when Matt Lauer signs on to NBC News' Today show, his confidence radiates from the screen. But even after 11 years as co-anchor, the star of America's most-watched morning show says he never takes his seat on the Today couch for granted.
“I'm never wanting for interviews or stories,” Lauer says. “That is the incredible gift that this show gives you.”
With its deep bench of talent, top ratings and NBC's vast newsgathering resources, Today almost always lands the “get” interviews and exclusives. Lauer is key to keeping Today on top. He is often the one to take on the big stories and, colleagues say, few do it better.
“Matt asks the right questions at the right time, and he makes news,” says Today Executive Producer Jim Bell. “The two biggest stories of our time right now are politics and the economy, and no one does those interviews better than Matt.”
Lauer credits part of his success to lessons learned from former Today anchor Bryant Gumbel, whom he succeeded in 1997. Gumbel, he says, was always prepared for the show, and Lauer wanted to carry on that work ethic. “Whether it was a cooking segment or the president, I was going to do my homework,” he says. “That became my mantra.”
That commitment helped Lauer rise to the Today show after a difficult journey through local and network news. Given his current fame, it is hard to imagine that Lauer struggled for years to make it in journalism. He left college at Ohio University early (he eventually earned his degree) to take a producer job at WOWK Huntington, W.Va., where he produced the noon newscast. When a reporter left for a bigger market, Lauer talked the news director into giving him a shot on-air. He got the job and a few months later was promoted to the station's bureau in Charleston, the state capital.
From there, Lauer headed to Richmond, Va., to host local news and entertainment magazine show PM Magazine, and then to stations in Providence and New York as host of their editions of PM Magazine. But then, after several steady years of promotions, Lauer says his luck dried up. New York's PM Magazine was cancelled after Fox bought the Metromedia chain of stations and wanted to air its own shows.
Suddenly, Lauer found himself in a period of “extreme underemployment,” he recalls. He was in and out of work, with shows getting cancelled or his contracts not being renewed. He landed some small jobs, including some reporting for ESPN and entertainment news for HBO. Looking to make extra cash, one day he answered an ad to work as a tree trimmer. When the phone rang later in the day, he assumed it was the tree company. It was actually the assistant to then-WNBC New York General Manager Bill Bolster, seeking a meeting with Lauer.
Over dinner at New York's venerable 21 restaurant, Bolster offered Lauer a job as morning news anchor for WNBC. Lauer had never anchored a newscast and knew some people in his newsroom would be skeptical. “I decided I was going to kill them by working hard,” he says.
At one point, he was anchoring from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., going home to sleep for a few hours, and returning to anchor the 5 p.m. newscast. In the mornings, Lauer would do live teases with Couric and Gumbel and felt there was nice chemistry to the exchanges. NBC execs took notice, too. One morning, Lauer took a call in the newsroom from then-Today executive producer Jeff Zucker, who wanted Lauer to fill in for a vacationing Gumbel. “The Today show was my dream job,” Lauer says. “It was a surreal moment.”
“He was the most natural person on television we'd ever seen,” says Zucker, now President and CEO of NBC Universal.
In 1993, Lauer began filling in on the Today news desk, and the next year joined the permanent cast as news anchor. (He continued to co-anchor WNBC's 5 p.m. news until 1996.) In 1997, he succeeded Bryant as co-host with Couric. Having been on failed shows, Lauer admits he was nervous to be a frontman.
“I thought the show would go in the tank and there would be only one person to point the finger at—me,” he says.
Those fears, of course, were unfounded. Today soared to an unprecedented period of success, and while Couric was the show's best-known star, Lauer steadily sharpened his skills and raised his profile. Among his biggest early interviews was a January 1998 sitdown with First Lady Hillary Clinton just days after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. Couric was slated to conduct the interview, but had to take leave after her husband passed away. NBC News execs were certain Clinton would cancel the previously booked interview, but she kept the plans. So, on short notice, Lauer stepped in and garnered rave reviews for the difficult interview.
No matter the subject, “Matt has a terrific ability to relax people around him; that's one of the reasons he does so well in interviews,” says his current co-host Meredith Vieira.
Lauer also thrives on breaking news. Among the major news stories he's anchored, he says Sept. 11 stands out. “It is a day that forever changed us,” he says. “It was the hardest day, trying to tell people what we know and what we are speculating.” While he and Couric struggled to report the news that day, Lauer was also trying desperately to get in touch with his loved ones, including his wife and newborn child. (Lauer now has three children with wife Annette Roque Lauer.)
Experiences like Sept. 11 and its aftermath helped prepare Lauer to become the show's cornerstone. When Couric left to anchor the CBS Evening News, NBC needed Lauer to step up, co-hosting with a rotating cast until its chosen successor Vieira could start in the fall of 2006. Lauer rose to the challenge, carrying the show and easing Vieira into the mix. “He has been our rock,” says executive producer Bell.
This fall, as the presidential election approaches, Lauer says he is in his element. Viewers should expect Lauer to chase big interviews and take the candidates and their surrogates to task on major issues. After all, such tenacity has become Lauer's hallmark.
“Matt asks tough questions in a professional way with all the follow-ups necessary,” Zucker says. “He is the perfect advocate for the viewer.”—Allison Romano
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