By Michael Malone
Grand Central Publishing
Successful books—successful anythings, for that matter—require talent, hustle and a bit of luck. Brian Stelter, New York Times reporter and author of Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV, knew he had the first two when he took on this project. The third one fell in his lap, as NBC cut Ann Curry from the Today anchor team and Good Morning America broke Today’s 16-year win streak through a combination of Today fallout, GMA anchor Robin Roberts’ brave battles with a grave illness and ABC’s own dogged determination.
Stelter simply could not have picked a better year to cover the a.m. TV wars, and duly credits the networks in his acknowledgements. “Thanks are in order to ABC and NBC, for giving me a story worth telling!” he says.
Stelter tells the story pretty well: tenacious reporting elicits lots of fly-on-the-wall details, juicy memos from key figures, and a survey from a marketing firm full of plum insights from Today show talent and braintrust as to what went so horribly wrong with the program.
The book starts and ends on Jim Bell, the former Today executive producer and the heel of this particular story. In January 2012, Bell is delighted to have come up with the master plan, called Operation Bambi, to excise Curry from the Today couch. At the end, in December of that year, it’s Bell’s last day on the job, the Today camera lingering awkwardly on his face.
Stelter notes the effects of sleep deprivation in morning television, the massive salaries, profits and egos, and the intense competition each and every day-and how the combination not surprisingly drives some participants daft. He’s given wide access at GMA, and not so much at Today, but shows some enterprise by peering in the Rockefeller Center window to study the Today stars at work-seeing what every 30 Rock tourist sees, but also seeing more. He covers the challenge of coming up with the right mix of lightweight and more substantial segments to keep both viewer and anchor happy.
Freed from Times editors who are known to strip authorly flourishes from stories, Stelter injects some grandiloquence into his prose to break up the monotony of the Nielsen numbers horse race. His metaphors are a mixed bag: Some fall flat (”Curry, by this point, would have to have been as dumb as a second-hour morning show segment”), some provoke a scratch of the head (”The GMA hosts did chitchat the way Horowitz did Scarlatti”), and some pop off the page (an awkward Today teaming of Deborah Norville with Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley in 1989 “took on the air of a sheepish threesome the morning after.”)
While the Today-GMA battles continue each day, Stelter dismounts on Bell’s final day, GMA firmly entrenched as No. 1, followed by an afterword updating the whereabouts of the book’s stars, including former NBC News chief Steve Capus, former NBC CEO Jeff Zucker and GMA’s Roberts.
I wonder how much interest the general public has in Top of the Morning; does the typical watcher of GMA or Today in the heartland, diehard about tuning in as they may be, care about the backstabbing and plotting behind the scenes?
But for people working in the business (i.e., you), the book is a compelling glimpse at what goes into making winning television on one of its largest stages, involving characters you know personally, or at least by name. And Top of the Morning comes with an index, so you can see if you’re mentioned in it before reading.