Exactly what Matt Lauer is accused of doing is unknown at this point. What's certain is that he's been fired by NBC. What's also certain is that morning TV in the United States is now in turmoil.
With Lauer gone from The Today Show and Charlie Rose gone from CBS This Morning, both because of alleged sexual misconduct or harassment, the most lucrative platform of network TV has been upended.
In a purely business context, the morning shows are vitally important to ABC, NBC and CBS. With prime-time network TV in decline as a revenue source, thanks to competition from cable and streaming services, morning shows have become indispensable. They bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in ad revenue while being relatively cheap to produce.
The fact that Lauer, a huge figure in the morning arena, was abruptly fired only underlines the force of the momentum behind revelations about sexual misconduct in the media and entertainment industries. Lauer, 59, has been co-anchor of Today since January, 1997, and before that spent three years as the news reader on the show. His firing is at the level of Bill O'Reilly's ouster from Fox News – a seismic shift.
While the details surrounding Lauer's firing are unknown, the event also underlines that, in the TV news business, vast power is anchored in male figures whose behind-the-scenes ruthlessness and obnoxious behaviour is blithely tolerated. Women have come and gone from The Today Show, but Lauer was its king and, according to numerous reports over the years, malicious in his manoeuvres for control. During his years at Today, Katie Couric was his co-anchor, then Meredith Vieira, Ann Curry and finally the current co-host Savannah Guthrie. The women left, Lauer stayed.
The ouster of Ann Curry five years ago was, according to a long report in New York Magazine, a particularly vicious battle. Lauer, nearing the end of his contract, had dallied with defecting to a competing network. In this context, NBC was anxious to keep and promote Curry, a vastly experienced journalist. If Lauer departed, NBC had Curry as a hard-news expert with credibility. Lauer stayed with NBC, but, the reports say, devoted his energy to diminishing and demoralizing Curry. They barely spoke off-camera, he ignored her input into the show's content and direction, and fostered a culture in which men working in the show continually mocked Curry's appearance and clothes.
Television fame often makes people delusional. It makes people who talk about themselves on the air feel terrifically important. Fame and recognition on the street adds to the hubris, to the delusion that the TV star is a really, really interesting person. Add in the entitlements that come with TV stardom – there's always a limo to take you to the studio and an assistant to get your coffee just the way you like it – and hauteur flourishes. Common sense fades away. Some people start believing their power as a focal point for a popular TV show makes them untouchable. Given the number of men revealed to have behaved inappropriately, it seems men are particularly susceptible.
One of the truths that is emerging from this wave of accusations against powerful men and the resulting downfall of several, is that many men are hopeless at collaborative work, if not incapable. Successful morning TV is an intricate piecing together of many disparate parts. The mood, tone and flavour of the package must be perfectly brought together. That's achieved collaboratively. Viewers connect with a familiar package and see the team on their favourite morning show as something akin to extended family.
For some time, Matt Lauer was the most powerful man in that family. And NBC needed his familiar face. After a long reign as the top network morning show, Today has been losing to ABC's Good Morning America in the ratings. For the week of Nov. 13, GMA was No. 1 in total viewers, for the sixth week in a row. The Today Show was in second place, but ranked first among adults 25-54. However, compared with last year – an election year – Today was down 30 per cent in the younger demographic.
Likely pleased by its success with a younger demographic – the source of more lucrative advertising – NBC would be highly unlikely and reluctant to let Lauer go at this critical juncture in the ratings wars. The fact that he's gone, abruptly, tells us that a true and overdue reckoning is under way. Even the most powerful men cannot cling to jobs and power.
Morning TV is its own strange universe. When Apple launches its first original drama series next year it will be about two morning-show hosts, played by Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. By the time series arrives, real morning TV in the U.S. might finally be about the women, not the men. When Matt Lauer is fired, that universe has finally and rightly changed.