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Matt Lauer's Wake-Up Call

Ready or not, it's time for the Today show veteran to step up 11/12/2006 07:05:00 PM Eastern

For a professional early-riser, Today show co-host Matt Lauer, 48, is still waking up to the reality that he is now the dean of morning television. Not only has former co-host Katie Couric’s departure thrust him into the leading role at the NBC show, but the ascension of ABC’s morning man Charles Gibson to the evening anchor chair has made Lauer the most seasoned veteran of the high-stakes morning-news wars.

With NBC struggling in primetime and facing deep cuts to its news division, Lauer is more vital to the network than ever before. As the star of a $500 million-a-year cash cow, he must steady the show as new co-host Meredith Vieira settles in and protect one of NBC’s most reliable profit centers.

For now, Today is still on top, handily beating chief rival Good Morning America (by nearly a million total viewers and some half a million in the key 25-54 news demo season-to-date). But the ABC newscast has been tenacious, and if The Early Show ever gets its much needed makeover, CBS may yet be a morning player.

In a wide-ranging interview last month at his office overlooking Rockefeller Plaza, Lauer spoke about the importance of gravitas, life after Katie and the mixed blessing of having a “dream job.”

You are now the senior guy in morning news. Is this a period of reinvention for you?

I still consider myself a little bit of the new guy. Katie had been here five years longer than I had, so I always felt she was the senior partner. Now I have been here 10 years longer then Meredith [Vieira] and a few years longer than Diane [Sawyer at GMA] in this reincarnation, and now Charlie is gone. Over at CBS [Early Show], they are all newer than I am. Is that a little weird? Yeah, there’s no question it is. But it has its advantages.

The question of gravitas arose when Katie took her new job. Is that a quality you are concerned about?

I thought those were appropriate discussions to be held around Katie’s transition and what she was going off to do. The only time I can remember in my career really feeling like the gravitas train was bearing down on me—and wondering whether I could get off the tracks or get run over by the train—I have to admit, was when [former Today host] Bryant [Gumbel] left the show 10 years ago. I remember sitting in Bryant’s last show, and it was absolutely a little bit daunting to think I was going to fill his shoes. I didn’t worry about filling the shoes when Katie left.

Was the focus on you surprising after Katie left?

Did I know some of the extra pressure she was carrying would be put on my shoulders? Absolutely. Was I eager? In some ways, yes. I was eager for the responsibility, but I was not eager for the attention that it brings. But you can’t have it both ways, so I made that deal.

Katie was a lightning rod for tabloid scrutiny. Now more of that spotlight comes your way. How do you deal with it?

There are things that will be written that are true, and they are going to sting. Other things will be written that are completely false, and you just have to put up with it. I see that stuff all the time. I walk past newsstands; I know what’s out there. And you know what? If it’s true, my bad. If it’s not, their bad.

Your colleague Brian Williams came to be identified with the coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Is there a story you think people associate with you?

I don’t have a pet story or subject. I don’t think our show really allows that because we shift gears here so fast. It’s very hard to really dive into one story and stay there for the long, long haul. I view myself more as a utility infielder. I want to have a broader base in covering a lot of stories instead of being known for one story.

But there are stories that define interviewers, and you have had a couple recently.

You know what’s funny, sometimes it’s the stories you least expect. I’m still baffled at what gets the attention. [Last year’s interview with] Tom Cruise is a great example. You go into an interview like that expecting to talk a little about a movie and some other things in his life, and the next thing you know, it becomes a bit of a national dialogue. Or you go and do what you think is a thoughtful half-hour with the president, and no one comes up to you on the street. But when [pop star] Britney Spears cries, that’s all people want to talk to you about.

How hard is it to keep your composure when things heat up in an interview?

The Tom Cruise interview is probably the best example of that over the last couple years. You are sitting in this interview and wondering if it is coming across to everyone the way it is coming across to you. And part of you—because it got a little uncomfortable, as you know—the non-broadcaster part of you wants to bring that to an end because you want to shake hands and be buddies again. But the broadcaster part of you says, “Keep going with this. This is going to be great television.”

How is the chemistry with Meredith coming along?

It’s gotten better. The only thing that still needs to develop is timing. Sometimes, we still talk over each other or have those small awkward pauses. Come back six months into it, and you’ll see those gone. What you are seeing right now is, we are all in the honeymoon phase. It’s all about the positive. Does that mean that, six months or a year down the road, we won’t face our own issues, just like every team will face issues? At the moment, though, we are currently really enjoying the honeymoon.

Does the new team need to prove itself on the next 9/11-type story?

Sure. If there is a major, major event that happens—and you don’t even like to talk about it—there is no question people are going to look at us and say, how did these two handle it as opposed to Matt and Katie, or Diane and Robin [Roberts], or anybody at CBS.

How closely do you watch the ratings, and are you surprised GMA has hung in there?

I’m not [surprised] at all. I watch the ratings periodically intensely and then sometimes not at all. Clearly, as the transition took place, I watched the ratings fairly closely. When you talk about GMA “hanging in there,” though, it’s interesting. We lost probably the most popular morning personality perhaps in the history of morning television, and now we have grown the ratings, and you are saying you’re surprised they hung in there? I’m surprised we hung in there. I really am.

Were you surprised you hung in there in the fall of 2004, when GMA was close to finally surpassing you?

The momentum clearly wasn’t going in our favor. We certainly weren’t getting a lot of help from primetime. That was exactly when our ratings were going down and they were going up, and I thought, “The tea leaves don’t look good here.” But I think what happened was a wake-up call. I don’t think you can overestimate the role pride took in it. And something else happened. It was also about the time that people started taking some very unwarranted, unfair, unkind shots at Katie. And even with viewers, I think they said, “Enough.” I think that was very demoralizing for Good Morning America when they got that close and didn’t seal the deal.

How frustrating are NBC’s primetime woes today?

It’s frustrating. Clearly. Would I like to see a couple of real great buzz-worthy hits in primetime? Absolutely. It would make our jobs a lot easier. But I feel bad for the people who are in charge of primetime, and the pressure they are under. They are not given a lot of time to let anything sit and work.

How involved are you in the booking wars?

It has become so competitive, to an entirely different degree. When I first took this job 10 years ago, in terms of the hosts of the show being involved in the booking wars, it was a once-a-week type of deal, for a political leader or a major, major movie star who wasn’t going to talk. Today, the involvement we have in much more run-of-the-mill bookings is incredible. If I told you what the interviews were when you saw them on-air, you’d say, “You had to call for that interview?”

How do the NBCU 2.0 cutbacks impact you?

I would be lying if I told you there isn’t a little bit of uncertainty around here. Are there people here who are looking over their shoulder a little bit? Absolutely. Is there a certain amount of redundancy in the news division? Absolutely, some of it can go. We are dealing with reality. In the past, in some ways, we dealt a little with fantasy. Now reality is setting in, and there will have to be some hard decisions made.

But Today is a driver of the news division and the network.

And without going out and making a guarantee, I think that will be very much taken under consideration when these cuts are made. There is no question you have to protect your base, and there is no question this is a profit center for the network. And I don’t think they will do anything to imperil that.

Have you been watching the Evening News With Katie Couric?

I actually watched a little bit last night. I watched her during the first week. The bottom line is, do I not watch for any reason specifically? Is it anything against Katie? No. If I’m available at 6:30, I have to watch Nightly News. It’s important for me to see where our correspondents are, because I probably will use the same people the next morning.

How do you read Katie’s ratings drop after opening so big?

I think the reality is that these things don’t change overnight. There was a lot of sampling in the beginning, with good reason: It was a big deal in television news. But I do think habits settle back quickly, and she’s got to go out now and do something vastly different from what everyone else is doing to tell people or convince people it’s worth changing the channel. I’m sure that’s what they are working on right now.

How will she deal with that?

Katie’s got a strong will. I don’t think Katie went into this thinking she was going to be the overnight sensation and change the game instantly. I talked to her a few times about it, and I think near the end of [the build-up] she tried to close her ears a little bit to the hype, because that’s something that’s not beneficial at all. I think she is realistic about what she faces, and I don’t think she will get discouraged this quickly.

Have you talked to her since she started?

I talked to her after the first couple of weeks. I think it’s a good time for her; she’s got her nose to the grindstone.

Are you happy to have all the Katie stuff in the rear-view mirror?

I don’t think it will ever really be behind us. She is always going to be coming up. When we do our year-end retrospective, are we going ignore her? Of course not. She will always be a part of this show. And by the way, I don’t think Meredith is threatened by that. She doesn’t think she was born as the only host of the Today show.

You just seem happier since the transition. Is that accurate?

Keep in mind, at the time Katie was here near the end, it was a tough time for the show. We were fighting a network issue, which we are still fighting. We were fighting negative press. There was a time where you needed a member of the New York bomb squad to open the newspaper every morning. People were taking shots at us left and right. It wasn’t the happiest time. When she left, there was a lot of pressure around here. It’s just different now, more than it’s better. There are different personalities.

Does Katie’s moving on make you think about your next step?

I do. I’m here for a long time, and I’ve said in the past that the good and bad of getting your dream job is I don’t have another dream job. I don’t have that sitting on the horizon. I don’t have aspirations for the evening. I don’t have aspirations for late night. At the moment, in some ways I am a little overly satisfied here.

WEB EXCLUSIVE – MORE FROM MATT LAUER

With Katie gone, many people now say this is your show.Does that still make you nervous?

Clearly over the summer it did.I was nervous.Katie was on the show for 15 years and was a driving force in morning television and is a huge star.I would be lying to you if I told you there weren’t a lot of nights where I sat there wondering what was going to happen when she leaves.

What is Meredith’s biggest challenge?

The biggest issue Meredith is having right now has nothing to do with content; it has everything to do with format. When you do The View for nine years, the format becomes second nature.One of the things I’m conscious about is that Meredith shouldn’t have to fit into what we have been doing for 10 years.It shouldn’t be Meredith fitting into the hole left by Katie.The show should also adapt to her strengths.

Did you talk to Meredith much about her new role at the beginning?

Not really. It was okay for her to express opinion on The View, but here we are much more held to the straight and narrow and unbiased journalistic standards. After I interview the president, if, in my emails afterward, 60% said you were too soft and 40% said you were too hard, if we’re pissing off people equally on both sides, we are doing our job. Meredith hasn’t had any problem with that from what I have seen so far. I think she understands that clearly.

Is she what you expected?

Her reputation is of being a normal person, easy to work with.So far I haven’t seen anything to prove that was fabricated.She is incredibly concerned about fitting in.She’s incredibly conscious of her place here.

How has she adjusted to the hard news coverage, especially in the first half-hour?

I think it’s been seamless. I’m thinking back to [interviews with] Laura Bush and Bill Clinton. I don’t think there’s an issue or subject or interview that has thrown her. One of the things that is very apparent to viewers, and to anyone who works with her, is she does her homework.Sometimes a ridiculous amount.

You recently have interviewed both Bill Clinton and President Bush. Which is the tougher interview?

You get fewer questions in with Bill Clinton. You ask a question, and he tends to go off a little bit.Right now, a tougher interview is George Bush, only because there is something about walking into the Oval Office and sitting down with a sitting president.It just makes you bring a different game.I don’t care how many times you interviewed him as governor; when he is president and he is in that setting with those trappings of power, you feel as if you are under a microscope, and you want to perform at your best.

Is there more pressure these days to try and get an interview subject wound up?

I don’t think so. Take an interview with the president: I don’t think people expect me to go in there and rile him up. I think people want me to ask the questions that are on their minds and not take just the first answer as the only answer. One thing some people don’t do enough is ask a simple follow up question. Many [interview] subjects are not pressed enough, and so sometimes you will find the energy level raises and sometimes it does feel a little antagonistic when you do ask a follow up. And God forbid a second follow up. But that’s just doing what we are paid to.There is no game plan of, “This is where I am going to stick it to the president,” or “This is where I am going to stick it to Tom Cruise or make Britney Spears cry.”Nor should there be.

How are careful at Today not to seem as though you’re just shilling for company properties?

We’ve heard the critics, so we are a lot more conscious about it now. Part of that is just comfort level; we don’t want to seem like we are out there just shilling our own shows.But the competitive side of this show, you look at what is at stake here for the networks, and you talk about us being a cash cow. It’s not at stake because we are out there doing promotion and fluff; it’s because we are the leading news division and the first thing people see in the morning.Our first half hour still has to set the news agenda for the day, and I think we still do that on a regular basis.

How often does Jeff Zucker stop by?

I mostly see him, to be quite honest, up in the make-up room getting his hair cut around 9 o’clock when I go up there.I don’t see him downstairs as much.I think Jeff has kind of an arms-reach approach to the show right now. I think he is pretty confident in the way it is going, and I know he is thrilled with the transition.

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