The story of the "Today" show's fall from grace – from its ratings losses to the debacle of Ann Curry’s firing – has received a lot of press. But, there’s a whole other side of the story, which Brian Stelter’s newly released book, "Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV," exposes.
"I think it's two books in one," Stelter tells TheWrap. "There's the 'Today' book and the 'GMA' book. I think the 'GMA' story is so much more interesting, because 'GMA' finally figured out a way to beat the 'Today' show. 'GMA' had basically given up. Some staffers at 'GMA' felt they’d never win. But, they found a way to do it."
The ABC morning show first broke "Today's" 16-year weekly winning streak among total viewers in April 2012, and then its streak among the key news audience, 25- to 54-year-olds, in July. But, the big win came in November of last year when "GMA" won its first sweeps month both in average total viewers and in the key demo.
The road to that win shared some perilous turns that were very similar to "Today," but hinged on how each show handled those challenges. Like Curry, for example, anchor Robin Roberts’s firing from "GMA" was a foregone conclusion among show producers.
"The two networks each wrestled with a crisis involving their top female anchor," Stelter, who also has covered the morning show wars for the New York Times, says.
"And they did it two very different ways," he continues. "The parallel between Ann and Robin, although they are imperfect, they're very interesting. Both shows in June worried about the future of their co-anchors and yet they went in two different directions."
Roberts isn't exactly your classic morning show co-host. A former ESPN sports reporter and a tall, broad-shouldered talent who didn’t fit the mold for morning shows – blond and whip smart. In addition, many in the news department didn’t believe she had the journalism chops.
Roberts made it difficult to fire her. She gained a lot of support from viewers while covering Hurricane Katrina (where the Mississippi native openly worried about her own family on-air) and then won viewers over after Charlie Gibson left in 2004 and she and Diane Sawyer carried the show. But, then that era ended and Bill Clinton political advisor George Stephanopoulos was hired in 2009. Their chemistry was off from the start.
"There was very real talk when [ABC News president] Ben Sherwood arrived [in 2010] about removing George and Robin," Stelter says. "I don't think viewers realized that at all, that George and Robin were an odd couple. They were even odder than Ann Curry and Matt Lauer. But, 'GMA' decided to add people than subtract. And by adding Josh Eliott and Lara Spencer, they made the show more of an ensemble. I think it’s more like ‘The View,’ than it’s like the 'Today' show."
Stelter believes that the “GMA” rise hasn’t been covered as much as NBC’s decline, because the show’s producers and anchors don’t want to come off smug or boastful.
"I think they know that if there’s a lesson from the 'Today' show is that if you get too comfortable in first place, you’re bound to wound up in second," Stelter says. "And, maybe they’re trying to avoid that outcome."
For the most part, Stelter spent an equal amount of time on-set and in the control rooms at both shows while writing the book over the past two years or so. Both shows gave him 45-minute interviews with the anchors (except Lauer and Curry, who declined to speak to him after her removal). Things did change for Stelter during Curry’s last days at "Today."
"I was allowed to visit the control room more often at 'GMA,' because they didn’t shut me out in June the way the 'Today' show did," the 27-year-old explains. "They gave similar access up until they removed Ann.”
"The 'Today' show, for obvious reasons, wouldn’t let me visit the control room on the days that Ann Curry was about to leave," he goes on to say. "I was able to watch through the windows like a tourist. I learned a lot that way."
Despite his respect for the way "GMA" took over the morning and the way in which NBC disposed of Curry, Stelter walks away with a high respect for Lauer and "Today."
"I realize that right now Matt Lauer has had some bad press," he says. "That's because what happened last year was really, really bad. Research shows that it damaged his reputation. But, he’s the best morning show host in history, great interviewer. I still love waking up with him."
And as far as the next chapter of this morning show story, Stelter is clear on what he’d write if given the chance.
"I would love to write a new chapter about the comeback of the 'Today' show, because it’s trying now and it’s doing some very smart things," he says.
"Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning" (Grand Central Publishing) is currently available at booksellers nationwide.