Tuesday morning, Ann Curry got thumped by a “Today” TV camera.
It happened during a crowd-panning sequence out on Rockefeller Plaza: Curry’s face collided (or appeared to) with the camera lens on live TV.
Matt Lauer introduced her as “old flat-nose Ann Curry,” in a likely reference to a character in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” as everybody shared a laugh at her expense.
Still, this indignity was small potatoes for the wakeup host, who has faced down months of speculation that she hasn’t pulled her weight in the morning-show ratings war.
But if shrinking ratings for “Today” seem to be leading Curry into the sunset, the fault may not lie in her performance as much as in the nature of the war she was drafted to fight.
Curry, who was tapped to sit alongside Lauer when Meredith Vieira left NBC’s “Today” last June, is reportedly about to pay the price for the resurgence of ABC’s “Good Morning America,” which recently snapped the winning ratings streak “Today” had reveled in for more than 16 years.
Curry is generally regarded as a solid journalist, with a passion for international reporting, as well as a good soldier: Starting at “Today” as its news reader in 1997, she stood by patiently in 2006 as Katie Couric left for CBS and Vieira, not she, won the plum co-anchor job.
An upcoming cover story in Ladies’ Home Journal magazine (which arrives on newsstands in a couple of weeks and may serve as her unexpected eulogy) finds Curry saying noble things like, “I know NBC pays my salary but I have never doubted who I work for … the people who watch” and “I want to have a life of value. For me, that means giving people information that can give them a better life.”
A year ago, on landing the anchor job, she voiced the same sentiments.
“I have a real sense of service when it comes to this job,” she told The Associated Press — “taking care of the viewer and helping them have information that I think they should know and want to know.”
But all this raises a bigger question: Has Curry ever taken a good look at the show she’s such a big part of?
With an almost single-minded focus on celebrity, crime, scandal and soft-serve news-you-can-use (plus music performances, of course), “Today” most days has only a passing resemblance to an actual news program.
As an instructive contrast, “CBS This Morning” stands as the morning program that presents a daily package of news and information that any thinking viewer “should know and want to know,” in Curry’s words.
Granted, its audience trails those of “Today” and “GMA,” the Coke and Pepsi of an altogether different product category, characterized by empty calories and a lot of fizz.
But fluff has ruled in morning TV for decades, as a decisive moment for a Curry predecessor reminds us.
More than once, Tom Brokaw has recalled the morning in 1981 he was called upon to interview twentysomething starlet Charlene Tilton. Then appearing as Lucy Ewing on “Dallas” (and now back again, in its TNT revival), Tilton wanted to talk about a diet she was on. Brokaw’s attention strayed as he wondered, reasonably enough, what any of this had to do with journalism.
His conclusion: nothing. Within months, he had bolted from his five-year stay at “Today” for the anchor chair of “NBC Nightly News.”
But this sort of wake-up call and a decisive response to it is rare.
Matt Lauer, the undisputed driving force of “Today” in his 16th year as its anchor, can handle legitimate news as well as anyone on TV. But enthroned at “Today,” he also seems game for any manner of piffle.
In May, he was saddled with interviewing reality-stars mom-manager Kris Jenner, there to plug the new season of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” on NBC sister channel E!.
Jenner was coy about spilling any actual details of the upcoming season (her purpose was to tease “Today” viewers, not enlighten them), and Lauer played along.
“I’m gonna be so proud of this interview at some future date,” he said, tipping his hand that he has standards. But it was all in good fun as he joked that “this is a resume tape waiting to happen.”
No such “resume tape” is needed. Lauer isn’t going anywhere. This spring he agreed to a long-term contract to stay put at “Today.” Why not? In terms of star value, salary and clout, following Brokaw’s long-ago path to “Nightly News” would be a step down for Lauer in 2012, even if he had a mind to engineer it.
Make no mistake: “Today” is a huge, profitable, powerful enterprise, which may have helped Curry think that what she does there automatically has value. And now she understandably may wonder how she failed.
Hasn’t she done everything asked of her? So far this week, she has interviewed both leads of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” handled a cooking segment, debriefed a show-biz journalist for a segment called “What’s Up: Celebrity,” and pitched in for her program’s day-after-day coverage of bullied bus monitor Karen Klein — on Tuesday, Curry welcomed the Greece, N.Y., grandmother to Studio1A.
Besides, how do you measure Curry’s day-to-day performance when morning ratings are skewed by an ever-escalating arms race of stunting between “Today” and “GMA,” where, in the first two hours when they go head-to-head, no gimmick is spared and no retaliatory strike is too outrageous (witness Sarah Palin snagged as a “Today” guest host in May to blunt the anticipated audience spike when Katie Couric guest-hosted on “GMA”).
Never mind. “Today” has stumbled. Curry apparently will take the fall.
Already, a guessing game is under way for who will replace her. Savannah Guthrie, who co-hosts the four-hour extravaganza’s third hour, is poised at the top of the list of Curry’s possible replacements.
But beware: A quarter-century ago, Deborah Norville was vaulted to the anchor desk beside Bryant Gumbel, which left viewers thinking she had pushed out the beloved Jane Pauley. This led to a backlash from her sympathetic fans, with “GMA” the ratings beneficiary. Little more than a year later, Norville was gone.
Now, with “GMA” already trading weekly wins with “Today” after its 852-consecutive-week supremacy, following Curry as “Today” co-host may not be such a plum assignment.
As for Curry, whose sometimes serious reporting is easily lost in her show’s overwhelming foolishness, a departure from “Today” might actually be fitting. If she’s really a serious journalist — or believes she is, at least — she’s in the wrong place.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier
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