'Today's' HOF Speech
What would J. Fred Muggs think? The show that the ill-tempered chimpanzee was brought in to save has become a television icon, spawning imitators, launching careers, setting the national dialogue and inspiring countless aspiring television journalists.
NBC's Today show has come a long way since 1953, when about a year into its run host Dave Garroway was forced to swallow his pride and share the spotlight with a simian mascot-in a diaper, no less. A staple broadcast for NBC for nearly 60 years, the show's humble beginnings belie the cultural powerhouse it went on to become-from Nixon in China and Watergate, to Bill Clinton's Monica Lewinsky mess and the 2000 presidential election. Today is a veritable video history book, a window on the world for generations of Americans who made its hosts their morning companions.
The top-rated morning show since 1995 and a repository of the culture-high and low-since 1952, Today joins the B&C Hall of Fame as part of the class of 2010.
The list of Today alumni reads like a who's who in television news. It also offers a timeline of the evolution of the morning institution. It's hard to fathom today, but Barbara Walters, the doyenne of the television interview and the first female co-host on the program, was forbidden to ask the first question-or the second or third-when she did joint interviews with host Frank McGee.
Walters started on the show as a researcher and writer in 1961. She was quickly promoted to "Today Girl," which meant she did women's work-weather and light features. She worked her way up to become a full-fledged correspondent, but McGee was adamant about not letting Walters achieve too much on the program. It was his diabolical scheme that when they did joint interviews, he would ask those first three questions, with Walters finally coming in on the fourth. "That was a big fight," says Walters. "First, he didn't want me to come in at all."
When McGee died in 1974, Walters was officially named co-host of Today, the first woman to achieve that designation. The only reason she got it, she says, was because her agent had it written into her contract that if McGee left (and dying produced the same outcome), she would be named co-host.
"And no, I did not kill him," says Walters.
By then, she had been at Today for 13 years.
Tom Brokaw-who co-hosted Today from 1976 to 1982, when he left for Nightly News-made his first appearance on Today in 1964 when he was an anchor on KMTV, the NBC affiliate in Omaha, Nebraska.
Brokaw and his wife, Meredith, made a trip east to see friends and take in the 1964 Worlds' Fair in New York- and a foray to the Today studio at Rockefeller Center was on their itinerary.
"We went down to stand outside the window with a big sign that read, ‘Watch Today in Omaha with Tom Brokaw on KMTV, Channel 3.' And they put that on the air," Brokaw recalls.
"For people who lived in the part of the world in which we grew up, the Today show was a snapshot of New York City every morning," Brokaw adds. "It was very exotic. It seemed very upscale and very urbane to us out there in the rural areas of America. So when we came here and stood outside and everyone back home got to see us, it was a big deal."
It has remained a big deal for countless masses that still show up with signs and stuffed animals, making Today's Rockefeller Center studio a tourist staple. And the windowed studio that lets the world in-signs and all-has been emulated by competing morning shows across the television dial.
By the late '80s though, the program had fallen to second place in the morning news race to ABC's ascendant Good Morning America. And when Jeff Zucker, the outgoing president and CEO of NBC Universal, began his career at Today as a field producer in 1989, the show was in disarray. Co-host Bryant Gumbel had written a memo to then executive producer Marty Ryan detailing what Gumbel determined were the show's many shortcomings, reserving his most vehement criticism for fellow staffers. Of weatherman Willard Scott, Gumbel wrote that he "holds the show hostage to his assortment of whims, wishes, birthdays and bad taste," concluding, "the guy is killing us and no one's even trying to rein him in." Of Today movie critic Gene Shalit, Gumbel's memo called his reviews "often late" and his interviews "[not] very good."
Recalls Zucker: "A week into my arrival at the Today show, I remember going to an emergency staff meeting about the issues that this memo had caused and I'm thinking to myself, I wonder if it was always like this?"
When Katie Couric was promoted from national political correspondent and full-in host to full-time co-host in 1991, Today was still an also-ran in the morning show race. But by the mid-'90s, under the stewardship of Zucker (who was named executive producer in '92), Today turned the corner. It was winning the booking wars, and by 1995 it had surpassed GMA as the top rated morning show.
By the time current co-host Matt Lauer was named co-host with Couric in 1997, Today represented a pinnacle in the competitive world of television news. "I used to work on shows that got cancelled every year. So I was constantly out of work," says Lauer. "[Today] was an opportunity for me to work on a show that nobody was going to cancel."
Jim Bell, who moved from NBC Sports to take the helm of Today in April 2005 in the run-up to Couric's departure in 2006, had a different perspective on the piece of history he was being entrusted with. "I was nervous. I wanted to vomit," laughs Bell, adding, "It's an honor. We're just here for a while. You get to be part of this great thing and hopefully you leave it as good if not better than you found it."
Bell need not have worried. The addition of Meredith Vieira as co-host with Lauer has preserved the Today show's ratings leadership as well as its intangible and essential chemistry. "I'm not particularly a morning person," admits Vieira. "But this is a show that would be almost impossible to turn down, because of the history behind it. There's a sense of pride that comes with filling the seat, for however long that is."--Marisa Guthrie