Earlier this month an NBC executive contacted Anderson Cooper with a question that would flatter and intrigue just about anyone. Would Mr. Cooper, the biggest star of CNN, consider replacing Matt Lauer on the “Today” show in the months to come?
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Mr. Cooper may have told NBC he was not interested. Nonetheless, the entreaty indicates that NBC executives are actively talking about a succession plan for Mr. Lauer, whose future on “Today” has been the source of widespread speculation in recent months. Mr. Lauer, a star of the “Today” show for the better part of two decades, signed a contract last year — believed to pay him $25 million a year — that keeps him at the network at least through the end of 2014. But the recent outreach to Mr. Cooper, described by people on condition of anonymity, suggests that NBC might remove Mr. Lauer from his co-host chair before then, or that Mr. Lauer might ask to be replaced.
The call from NBC was first reported Tuesday night by Deadline.com. It was so surprising that some television industry executives thought the story was untrue, chalking it up to troublemaking by agents or rival networks. But three people with knowledge of the call confirmed that it happened, and said they too were taken aback by it. The people insisted on anonymity because the call was considered confidential. It is unclear who at NBC made the call to Mr. Cooper. The news division does not currently have a president. Patricia Fili-Krushel, the chairwoman of the NBCUniversal News Group, who oversees the news division, previously worked at Time Warner, the parent of CNN, for nearly a decade. An NBC News spokeswoman declined to comment about the circumstances of the call or about Deadline.com’s report that Mr. Lauer later called Mr. Cooper to “express his disapproval.” A news division executive, who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity, confirmed in an e-mail that “NBC News has many exploratory talks with talent inside and outside of the network, but to read anything specific into that is presumptuous.” The same person also said, “We are confident in our anchor team and are focused on producing great morning TV.”
After 16 years as the No. 1 morning show, “Today” slipped behind ABC’s “Good Morning America” last year. While NBC News executives say they have resisted leaning toward the lighter fare and tabloid style of their rival, the “Today” show itself risks becoming tabloid fodder. In the wake of the Deadline.com report, TMZ.com said its sources had said that “Lauer is actually on board with the idea of Anderson replacing him,” and that “he actually planned to have a meeting with Anderson to sit down and discuss it.”
Mr. Cooper’s contract at CNN expires this fall. In some ways he’s a logical choice for “Today”; he is in his mid-40s and he has demonstrated that he can juggle hard news interviews with the fun and games that morning TV shows serve up. His presence on “Today” might spur former viewers to give the show another chance. “Today” has fallen about 20 percent in the ratings since Ann Curry was removed from the co-host chair next to Mr. Lauer last summer. On the other hand, co-hosting “Today” would be a drastic lifestyle change for Mr. Cooper, who is “not a morning person,” in the words of one friend, and is used to hosting a prime-time newscast. “Anderson Cooper 360,” his nightly hour on CNN, is shown live at 8 p.m. and is replayed at 10 p.m. While “360” is one of CNN’s highest-rated programs, it has struggled in the ratings; it currently attracts fewer than one million viewers at 8 p.m. Furthermore, Mr. Cooper’s shot at a daytime talk show in the fall of 2011 has been viewed as a disappointment; it was renewed for a second season, but was canceled last October, only one month into the second season. Episodes of the talk show will continue to be televised for a few more months.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Cooper at CNN did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the outreach from NBC. When his CNN contract ends, another option besides “Today” is an expanded role on the weekly CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes.” He currently contributes a few stories to the newsmagazine each year, and is contractually prohibited by CNN from doing more. CBS executives would jump at the chance to change that. Mr. Cooper may opt to stay at CNN, however, given that it provides him a daily presence on television.
The “Today” show would provide the same thing — and a much bigger audience to boot. But Mr. Cooper may be leery of appearing to force out Mr. Lauer, who has co-hosted “Today” since 1997. Mr. Lauer is by many measures the most successful male host of a morning television show since the medium was invented by NBC 60 years ago. But the perception that Mr. Lauer forced Ms. Curry from her job last June has badly damaged his reputation, and even spurred rumors that NBC may remove him from his job.
The network has denied those rumors in the past. On Wednesday, through a spokeswoman, the executive in charge of “Today,” Alex Wallace, said: “As we’ve said before, Matt Lauer is the best in the business. We want him in the ‘Today’ show anchor chair for many years to come.”
Later in the day, Ms. Wallace amended her statement to add, “We are not considering replacing Matt Lauer.”
Within NBC, Mr. Lauer’s contract to co-host “Today” is almost universally considered to be his last. Staff members at the show are divided; some say they believe that Mr. Lauer is still the biggest ratings draw the show has, and others say that the show cannot recover from its ratings slump until he is replaced.
Meanwhile, executives up the ladder at NBC, which is owned by Comcast, have wondered aloud whether they should make a change at “Today” before Mr. Lauer’s contract expires. The new co-host of the 9 a.m. hour of “Today,” Willie Geist, and the moderator of “Meet the Press,” David Gregory, are the two men most often mentioned as possible successors. An outsider whose name came up a year ago, Ryan Seacrest, who is the “American Idol” host and a radio D.J., is less frequently mentioned these days.
Regarding Mr. Lauer, “the calculus within NBCUniversal now is ‘Can we really wait a year and a half?'” said a person with past ties to the network, one of many who has been sought out by network executives for advice about “Today.” The person added, “Matt’s now in the same situation now as Ann Curry.
I RELISHED this line An NBC News spokeswoman declined to comment about [a ] report that Mr. Lauer later called Mr. Cooper to “express his disapproval.” SOMEONE IS NOT AMUSED ;)