NEW YORK — NBC's "Today" show has been one of the most stable and successful programs in the history of television over the past 15 years. Now it faces the possibility of a major makeover.
Co-host Meredith Vieira, the "newbie" on "Today" with five years in the early-morning anchor chair, is leaning toward leaving when her contract expires in September, according to multiple reports this week. That news was barely digested when an unconfirmed "Entertainment Tonight" story suggested that her partner, Matt Lauer, also may leave when his contract is done in nearly 21 months.
The two anchors have not commented on their futures. "There seems to be an awful lot of speculation on news anchors these days, and it's not our practice to comment on any of it," NBC News spokeswoman Megan Kopf said.
As this happens, the "Today" show magic number stands at 798. That's how many consecutive weeks it has been No. 1 in the morning show ratings — more than 15 years without a loss to ABC's "Good Morning America," CBS' "The Early Show" or anybody.
It's a gold mine for NBC, particularly important for the company as the network's prime-time fortunes collapsed. The program, now four hours long, earned more than a half-billion dollars for NBC News in 2010, more than it ever has.
"A lot of their strength has been that they have had a team together with very strong interpersonal relationships for a long time," said David Westin, former ABC News president.
The team goes beyond the two main anchors, and it is one comfortable with itself and with viewers. Lauer has been with the show since 1994 and co-anchor since replacing Bryant Gumbel in 1997. Newsreader Ann Curry has been there since 1997. Utility player Al Roker, who forecasts weather, does features and anchors the 9 a.m. hour, joined in 1996.
Many Americans have spent more time with them over morning coffee than with their spouses.
"Today" averages 5.5 million viewers a day this season, compared with 4.7 million at "Good Morning America" and 2.7 million at "The Early Show," according to the Nielsen Co. ABC has gained in viewers this season, but "Today" just recorded its widest margin of victory in seven years during the first quarter in the demographic it bases ad sales upon.
Transitions are a point of pride at NBC News, which passed the "Nightly News" baton smoothly from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams. The 2006 exit of Katie Couric, a key component of the show's success, was a real concern. But top NBC executive Jeff Zucker, who rose to prominence by running the "Today" show, lured Vieira from "The View" as a replacement and she fit in seamlessly.
"If they proved they could replace Katie Couric without a hiccup, they can replace Meredith without a hiccup," said Shelley Ross, who was "Good Morning America" executive producer from 1999 to 2004 and did the same job at "The Early Show" in 2007-2008.
Vieira, 57, in an interview with Ladies' Home Journal last fall, said, "I'll know when it's time to go, and I'm not afraid to go." She has spoken of spending more time with her husband, author Richard M. Cohen, who wrote a best-selling book about coping with multiple sclerosis and colon cancer. She has a less time-consuming second job as host of the game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."
"Meredith really likes the 'Today' show, she likes the people she works with, but it's a very intrusive way to live," Cohen said in the same magazine interview. "I think she may be nearing the point when she wants to reassess what she's doing and what she wants to do, and not get up at 2:30 in the morning."
Curry seems an obvious replacement. After she wasn't given the job in 2006, she stayed on at "Today" and reinvented herself as a reporter eager to travel the world for stories. Audience testing has shown she's consistently popular with viewers, Westin said.
If NBC went elsewhere, there's a good chance they would have two positions to fill: Human nature suggests someone who's been at the same job for 15 years and is passed over twice for promotion would want to move on.
Lauer is another issue entirely.
It's hard to know what to make of the report he's poised to leave. Networks have been known to leak stories to nudge action on a contract extension. NBC News often seeks long-term contracts for its valued employees, and quietly locked up Lauer at the same time the world had been focused on Couric's future.
Agents have also adroitly played the press to increase pressure on a company to raise a salary offer.
Or it could be true: 17 years is a long time to wake up for work in the middle of the night.
Even his rivals concede Lauer is the best at what he does — maybe ever.
"Women want to talk to Matt and men want to talk to Matt," Ross said. "The only men who have been as all-around talented with a broad range of skill sets are Brokaw, Gumbel and Lauer. That's it."
The "Today" show ratings often dip slightly when Lauer is off, something that hasn't been the case with his female co-anchors, she said.
"Matt is unique in morning television right now," Westin said.
There are no obvious candidates in line to replace him. Lester Holt anchors the weekend "Today" show. Willie Geist of MSNBC has filled in for Lauer. David Gregory once seemed an heir apparent, but he's ensconced at "Meet the Press." There's a shortage of highly-regarded male anchors in television in general, both at the national and local levels, Westin said.
Don't think Lauer and his representatives aren't aware of all this, and the show's value to the company. Lauer is only 53, with a young family, and there are limited opportunities elsewhere to get the eight-figure salary he'll surely command. He could easily be the highest-paid television news figure, if he isn't already.
There's a reason morning shows treat personnel changes like family members coming and going; they can be game-changers. Viewers treated NBC's replacement of Jane Pauley with Deborah Norville on "Today" like a neighbor who kicked out his wife for a younger woman. Fortunately for the show, fans fell in love with Couric. Viewers rejected Lisa McRee and Kevin Newman so swiftly on "Good Morning America" that Charles Gibson had to be called back to the rescue.
Do it poorly, and you could be facing a disaster.
Do it well, and the "Today" gold mine remains open.