Morning News Review - 'Today'

Saturday, June 23, 2012
[NOTE: this is the first of a five-part series critiquing morning news offerings from US broadcast and cable news providers.  In these pieces, I will provide my take on the composition, the hosts, the 'aesthetics', and any overt/covert 'messaging' that might be present and meant to attract your attention at the breakfast table.]

Today--the 'granddaddy' of morning television

DATE/TIMES:  11 June 2012/0700-0730
LOCATION: NBC Studios, New York, NY
HOSTS: Matt Lauer (co-anchor), Ann Curry (co-anchor), Natalie Morales (news), Al Roker (weather) [MSNBC's Willie Geist filled in for Lauer on this edition]
CORRESPONDENTS: Charles Hadlock (Bellvue, CO), Chuck Todd (White House), Michael Isikoff (Bellefonte, PA); Peter Alexander (Washington, DC)
GUESTS: Meghan McCain, Christopher Hayes (both in studio)

FLOW: the show started promptly at 7AM with a different three-note 'NBC' theme than I am used to hearing.  Curry and Geist traded story 'teasers' for upcoming stories (Colorado wildfires, US Commerce secretary John Bryson's hit-and-run accidents in California, Lady Gaga getting hit in the head with a pole during a concert appearance in New Zealand, an update on Mary Kennedy's recent suicide, and the 'reboot' of the Dallas series on TNT) with B-roll footage accompaniment.  The show's familiar theme music (composed by John Williams) along with the announcer voice-over and outside footage of Rockefeller Center brought this introductory segment to a close.

After greeting her guest co-anchor and the viewers, Curry started the in-depth portion with the wildfires and turned over coverage to Charles Hadlock in Bellvue, Colorado who provided on-the-ground updates of both the High Park Fire in his local area as well as the Little Bear Fire burning outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Geist picked up the story and turned to Roker for forecasts in those two areas as well as the Whitewater-Baldy Fire with accompanying graphics.  He also discussed heavy rains along the Florida and Alabama Gulf Coast with live video from Pensacola.

Geist moved on to the Bryson story involving several possible felony hit-and-run charges against the Obama cabinet secretary and he brought in NBC's Political Director and Senior White House Correspondent Chuck Todd to provide the latest updates to the story (Bryson had Secret Service protection but they normally hang back when outside Washington, DC, no trace of drugs or alcohol found at the scene, possible health or medical reason as cause).

Curry next moved to the trial of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky who is currently on trial for alleged sexual activities with underage boys while the leader of a charitable foundation.  Michael Isikoff, NBC News National Investigative Correspondent, reporting from Bellfonte, Pennsylvania, discussed the prosecution's opening statements as well as related email documents (he was assisted by NBC News legal consultant Wes Oliver in pre-recorded piece).

Geist then brought in Morales who briefly covered other stories of the day (manhunt for suspect in Auburn shootings, an update on global stocks with CNBC's Mandy Drury, the 8-year old daughter of British Prime Minister being behind at a pub, Gabrielle Giffords' last-minute campaigning for her Democratic replacement in the Tuesday special election, the conclusion of the French Open tennis final, the Lady Gaga story from the 'teasers', and a quick review of the previous night's Tony Awards).

At 7:15, the pace slowed a little bit with some light banter between Curry, Geist and Roker before he gave the national weather update and sent viewers to their local stations for more specific information.

When they returned, Geist then moved on to politics and the recent Romney video highlighting President Obama's "fine" comment on the private sector economy where he was joined by Washington, DC-based Peter Alexander to review clips from other networks' (Fox, ABC) Sunday shows that reviewed this 'gaffe'.

Curry then picked up this discussion with Meghan McCain and Christopher Hayes, both in the studio with her, as well as the recent allegations of White House leaks of sensitive intelligence information.  Curry asked McCain how Obama's recent statement compares to the one her father made in 2008 right before the economic 'meltdown'.  Hayes, an MSNBC weekend host, said that the quote was taken out of context.  On the leaks, McCain echoed her father's comments, which hint at some White House complicity for releasing highly classified data while Hayes said that there should be more leaks, not less.  This started an unscripted exchange between the two guests but both were able to agree to disagree on the points presented.

The national segment ended at 7:23 with a teaser for the aforementioned Kennedy story.  The local affiliate ran local commercials along with a short news/weather/traffic update before returning to the New York-based programming at 7:30.

BACKGROUND: I guess I subconsciously started with what I was most familiar with--NBC's Today show.  Over the majority of my morning viewing years, this program was an integral part of staying up-to-date with what was happening in the country and around the world.  I first started watching it, ironically, outside the United States when I was stationed in Japan while serving in the US Air Force.  Our base was geographically separated from many of the others in that country and we relied primarily on the delivery of video tapes from the Tokyo area to keep the local television channel up and running.

Due to the vast time difference between Japan and the US East Coast, the show actually airs during the early evening hours in that country if seen live (as it is now via satellite).  Back in the 1980s, such technology was in its infancy and only two US bases had receiver stations for the stateside broadcasts routed through the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service.  Their in-country representative, the Far East Network, would then provide copies of the downlinked programming to non-satellite equipped US bases spread throughout the archipelago.  Due to the problems with the 10-to-11 hour time difference and the delivery logistics, our local station made the decision to delay the showing of Today by one whole week.  For example, if this were 1984, the show I watched on June 11th would have been shown on June 18th, the following Monday.  It was an easy way to keep track of the days of the week but the news (and stateside weather) was awfully stale so far removed from its initial broadcast (CNN's Headline News was our sole television source for current information).

The Today team, circa 1988.  From left to right, co-host Jane Pauley, news anchor John Palmer, co-host Bryant Gumbel, movie critic Gene Shalit, and weather anchor Willard Scott.

The first ensemble of on-air hosts I can remember watching included co-anchors Jane Pauley and Bryant Gumbel, John Palmer at the news desk, and Willard Scott doing the weather updates and his trademark birthday greetings to centenarians.  Pauley was replaced by Deborah Norville who, in turn, was replaced by Katie Couric and Meredith Vieira before Curry ascended to the co-anchor chair in 2011.  Gumbel left the show in 1997 and Lauer has been there for the past 15 years.  According to Pat Weaver, the show's creator, those positions were originally called 'communicators' and were to have duties that differed greatly from the more-traditional roles of a news anchor.  These individuals would interview, report, moderate dialogue and generally tie the show together into a coherent whole and this initial standard from the early 1950s still holds true to the present day for this show and other morning news programs. 

CRITIQUE:  As the saying goes, familiarity often breeds contempt, and my relationship with this show will continue that idiom. Being the first morning news show that I remember watching, I will base my comments on it as well as how it 'trained' me to watch such programming.

The focus: Today is structured in a manner where it puts as much information into its first 20-25 minutes as possible for the 'commuter' viewer who needs a quick update on what is happening in the world around them before getting into their vehicle and heading off to work or school.  'Hard' news is featured during that period with the rest of the first first hour (and the remaining three) skewed towards 'softer' topics like food, fashion, and family issues.  Today, during my viewing history, started as a 2-hour broadcast but added a 9-10AM segment in 2000 and a 10-11AM portion in 2007 (this one, hosted by Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb, has been a frequent target of parody by Saturday Night Live).  As one of those 'commuters', I normally only watched the first 30-60 minutes of the show and then got ready to start my work day and that's why I've limited my viewing period to just the first half-hour of this and the other programs that I am reviewing. 

The hosts: Today uses the co-anchor format--one male, one female--with dedicated news and weather personalities (I'll call it 'the four-some' approach) and this model has been in place since Barbara Walters started her co-hosting role in 1966 (although she didn't get the 'co-host' title until 1974) and the addition of a meteorology knowledgeable anchor in 1978.  Lauer has been with the show since 1997 and recently inked a multi-year extension that will make him the show's longest serving host (he's currently tied with Gumbel, whom he replaced 15 years ago).  Curry was elevated from the news anchor desk when Meredith Vieira's co-hosting contract ended in 2011 with Morales, her long-time understudy, filling the news vacancy.  All of the primary personalities have communications or journalism pedigrees in their backgrounds (Geist, an MSNBC host and Lauer's fill-in on this day, is the son of longtime CBS News correspondent Bill Geist).

I was surprised when Curry was given the chair next to Lauer last year.  It wasn't totally unexpected (she regularly 'subbed' for either Lauer or Vieira when they were off) but I don't see her as being someone cut out for that particular role on a full-time basis.  I am not 'dissing' Curry but I see her more as a journalist and a presenter than as someone who really wants to commingle with some of the people she'll have to in her new position.  She was already well ensconced within the NBC News division (Today news anchor, host of Dateline NBC and fill-in for Brian Williams at NBC Nightly News) and, in my opinion, the co-anchor move is a step down in her journalistic credibility.  With a resume of international and crisis reporting from places like Baghdad, Darfur, and on the decks of the USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Constellation in the lead-up to US military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively, interviewing the likes of Adam Sandler or the latest marriage proposal viral video stars cannot be the goal she envisioned when starting her career back in 1978 in Medford, Oregon (and just so people don't think that this criticism is gender-related, I feel the same way when David Gregory, moderator for the network's Meet the Press program, fills in for Lauer).  With a younger Brian Williams firmly entrenched as the top nightly anchor on network television, perhaps Curry saw this as her only move within NBC to improve her resume for an eventual run at Williams' seat or, perhaps, to a competing network.

[UPDATE:  as I am writing this post, there are stories circulating in the media that Curry and NBC are in talks about replacing her on the show.  As I said above, I didn't feel she was a good fit for a position that, in the wake of Couric and Vieira,  now requires an inordinate amount of 'perkiness' or an über-extroverted personality--qualities that are not necessarily natural for a career journalist like Curry.]

The 'aesthetics':  This is a deliberately vague category because it can encompass a variety of different things that affect how the viewer likes (or dislikes) the program. This area includes the set, the location, and the presentation to the viewer at home--three key components in attracting (and maintaining an audience).  I'll also add other variables that don't fit into these but need to be addressed.

NBC News Studio 1A (photo courtesy of Cole_H)

The setStudio 1A has been Today's home in New York City since 1994 and despite some upgrades over the years, it has a 'confined' feeling to it.  Last renovated in 2006, its first floor sits at street-level and one area has a large window that provides for views of people outside the building who are vying for camera time and constantly wave or hoist signs to people watching at home.  This is probably the biggest distraction to viewers but, thankfully, that portion of the studio has panels/shades to cover the see-through expanse during the first half hour.  The color scheme for their surroundings is rather conservative (beiges, blues) with mood lighting provided for inside musical performances.  Weather permitting, several segments are done outside the studio to incorporate the visitors into the programming.  This exterior area is 'penned' off to allow the on-air hosts (and their guests) to have freedom of movement among the gathered crowd.  Sizes can vary between a dozen or so during bad weather (or for weekend broadcasts) to several thousand for live music events (estimates for the June 15th appearance by teen idol Justin Bieber had a crowd of nearly 8,000 squeezed into the spaces between the buildings in and around Rockefeller Center).

The graphics: Today, like almost all news programming, benefited from television's upgrade to high-definition that started around the middle of the last decade.  Changing the screen dimensions from a 4:3 (1.33:1) to a 16:9 (1.77:1) provides more display space to fill with data or graphics but NBC has chosen not to take advantage of this additional 'real estate'.  As seen in the screen grab above, the show only uses a sliver of the bottom portion of the screen to provide the viewer additional information about current goings-on.  The local Dayton affiliate only superimposes the time and temperature on that portion and leaves the 'ticker' area blank.  This non-use of that available tool to provide the audience as much information as possible puts them at a disadvantage against other shows who employ it (more on this in future reviews).

[UPDATE:  WDTN is now in the process of building their new high-definition studio for local news and event broadcasting which will eliminate the noticeable 'glitch' when engineers switched between the national HD broadcast and the local SD updates.  Perhaps they will also be incorporating new technologies to correct the 'ticker' issue I brought up above.]

The 'atmosphere':  The core group of Today's on-air hosts have been together for quite a long time (Morales, the newest of the four, joined the show in 2006) and that could be seen as a positive and a negative at the same time.  Until it was snapped this past April, Today had a 16-year streak of top ratings among the three major networks' morning programs but it is now pitched in a week-to-week duel with ABC's Good Morning America for those viewership-based laurels.  Such long-term devotion was beneficial to the bottom lines of the show's advertisers as well as the on-air talent (Lauer's new contract reportedly has him receiving $25 million per year for his services) but it can foster complacency and 'ossify' the focus of the programming to where it believes it must keep everything 'as it is' and not make changes.  The on-air 'chemistry' between the hosts is palatable but, as I mentioned earlier, Curry sometimes looks like a 'fifth wheel' during some of the non-scripted segments and doesn't have the innate ability to 'lighten up' when the situation calls for it.  Again, these are not negative traits for a career journalist but could be seen as such for someone who is supposed to help people wake up in kitchens and living rooms across the country.  She fit in well as the primary news anchor (and even as fill-in host during Lauer's and Vieira's absences) but, in the reported opinions of her superiors, this is not currently the case after just 12 months since taking over as a permanent host.

The 'messaging':   As a member of the overall NBC News 'family' of programming (which includes their nightly news broadcast, the primetime Rock Center with Brian Williams and Dateline NBC newsmagazine shows, and the MSNBC cable news outlet), Today is often 'tarred' with the 'liberal' or 'mainstream media' tag that conservatives routinely apply to all news organizations that are not Fox News or to news items that do not favorably cover their causes or ideology. Like most legitimate news outlets, NBC will cover political stories if they feel that the item(s) is(are) newsworthy.  In the June 11th broadcast, there were two segments concerning the Obama administration--one objectively (Commerce Secretary Bryson's traffic incidents) and one revolving around the current presidential campaign's latest point of distraction (Obama's 'fine' gaffe mentioned earlier) and other current political issues where opinion was invited by the moderator Curry to her guests (McCain and Hayes, who were both 'plugging' books) who provided a balance between the right and the left on the topics discussed. 

One current trend employed by NBC News that could be included in this topic involves the hiring of family members of America's most influential politicians (former First Daughters Jenna Bush Hager and Chelsea Clinton) as special correspondents.  Since neither majored in journalism in college, selecting them to such high-profile positions over dozens of other more qualified candidates points squarely at the network's attempt to gain access to their respective families for current or future stories (Hager recently interviewed her grandfather, former President George H.W. Bush, on the occasion of his 88th birthday for Today).  Meghan McCain, daughter of current Arizona senator and 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain, is an MSNBC analyst and frequently expresses her own opinions in a variety of media formats (she is also an author, blogger, and columnist for The Daily Beast).  However, during her segment with Curry and Hayes, she kept mentioning her father's name throughout the conversation, lending more credence to an 'insider' rationale for having appear instead of Michael Ian Black, the co-author of her latest book, America, You Sexy Bitch: A Love Letter to Freedom (in NBC's defense, Black, a Democrat atheist, would not have provided the ideological 'balance' to Hayes that McCain did).

OVERALL:  As a creature of habit, it is hard for me not to turn on this program if I am awake at 7AM (which I rarely am these days).  However, with the variety of morning news-related selections available to viewers today, it is becoming harder to make a definitive argument to stick with them if my schedule changes.  I do favor a multi-person morning news format and both ABC and CBS have made significant improvements to their shows that pose a significant challenge to Today's supremacy in the ratings (and on my television screen).  If I have a viewing period longer than 30 minutes, I may switch over to a more talk-oriented broadcast (MSNBC's Morning Joe or Current TV's Full Court Press) to stay focused on current events and politics rather than the human interest and other 'filler' that Today puts on between 7:30AM and 11AM.  As I've admitted in other posts here, I'm 'old school' and pretty much set in my ways but this 'old dog' is definitely capable of learning new tricks--that is, if they are to his liking.  So a quick word to NBC...don't take me for granted!

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