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‘Today’ Soaking It All in in Beijing

August 20, 2008 2:39 PM

It was a classic “Today” show moment Wednesday morning (Wednesday night Beijing time), when Meredith Vieira and Ann Curry chose not to flee the fountains that cranked up not quite when expected.

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SPLASH ZONE "Today" anchors Meredith Vieira and Ann Curry get soaked by fountains.

Instead, they frolicked like kids with a garden hose in the backyard and tried, more or less successfully, to get the always fastidious Matt Lauer and comic relief Al Roker to go with the water flow as well.

A couple of hours later, talking to a reporter back in the States, “Today” executive producer Jim Bell comfortably conceded, “We may have gotten a little carried away there, but fortunately we recovered in time, because we still had two hours of show left.”

That meant finishing the shift in wet hair and clothes for Ms. Vieira and Ms. Curry, who also kicked off her soggy shoes and worked barefoot.

“We’re going to take up a collection and head over to the Silk Market tomorrow and see if we can’t find her a similar pair,” Mr. Bell said. “You can tell we’re getting a little loopy with the hours and being on at night. We’re clearly having a lot of fun here. The Olympics have been just a magical event this time around for everybody.”

The icing on the magical cake: Preliminary data from Nielsen Media Research indicates “Today’s” Beijing sojourn has paid off with leads of 2.5 million viewers or more over ABC’s “Good Morning America.” That’s the NBC morning show’s biggest lead in at least eight years over its closest competitor.

Mr. Bell sounded like Michael Phelps, the Baltimore swimmer who achieved his goal of eight gold medals, when he said: “I think it’s fair to say this was just everything we could have hoped for, both as a morning show and, speaking as somebody who spent time working on five Olympics before coming to the ‘Today’ show, I know how gratifying this is for NBC Olympics—and we owe them a huge debt—and just for the overall company.”

Mr. Bell still had the release Thursday of the final national ratings for “Today’s” first week in Beijing to look forward to (not to mention the second week’s ratings, which will come in while he and Matt Lauer are in Denver to cover the Democratic National Convention), but there have been celebratory moments here and there in China.

Mr. Roker’s 54th birthday occasioned a cake and a karaoke night, the video evidence of which Mr. Bell hopes to expunge.

When asked what moment he has most relished, Mr. Bell was quick to describe two moments, both involving Mr. Phelps’s “magic carpet ride” and gold medals won by just a touch, and both shared with “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams and Mr. Lauer, all high-fiving.

Just a “group of guys sitting around the TV like we’re in college, on the edges of our seats like sports fans, just really caught up in the moment,” he said. “When you’re feeling that, you know there’s some magic involved.”

Mr. Bell feels this trip has been a bit of a magic carpet ride for Ms. Vieira, as well.

“This was her first Olympics. To borrow another painfully trite sports analogy: Big players play big in big games,” he said. “This was a big moment for her in her two years on the ‘Today’ show, and, gosh, did she ever deliver.

“She loved it and reveled in it. It’s been wonderful to watch.”

Mr. Lauer, who preceded the “Today” crowd by a week in Beijing, will leave tomorrow to get a bit of a break before heading to Denver, where Ann Curry also will spend next week.

“I see everybody here kind of talking about Vancouver, 18 months away. In Olympic terms, that’s a very short turnaround,” Mr. Bell said. “I sort of had to say, ‘Well, speaking of short turnarounds, we’re going to Denver next week to cover a little thing called the Democratic Convention.’ I was diplomatic.”

The rest of the morning show’s crew will head home in stages Saturday to be in place Monday morning in New York.

Mr. Bell will leave Beijing feeling that “this has all come together in a way you couldn’t have scripted any better. It’s been wonderful. It’s an affirmation of a lot of things: the value of the Olympics, of broadcast network television, and of our show.”

—Michele Greppi

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