NBC’s Today

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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 cohost 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 cohost 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 cohost.

“And no, I did not kill him,” says Walters.

By then, she had been at Today
for 13 years.

Tom Brokaw—who cohosted
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. Cohost 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 cohost
in 1991, Today was still an also-ran in the morningshow
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 toprated
morning show.

By the time current cohost Matt Lauer was named
cohost 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 cohost 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.”

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