‘Today’s’ Touchet Is Forging Bonds

Jul 21, 2003  •  Post A Comment

In his first sit-down interview since joining NBC News in November 2002 as executive producer of “Today,” Tom Touchet talked to TelevisionWeek about running the most-watched morning news show on TV. He also talked about bonding with his new TV family, which extends from the ensemble of Katie Couric, Matt Lauer, Al Roker and Ann Curry to the backstage corps of veterans, whose praises he also sings. Forever to be described as boyish and low-key, Mr. Touchet, 37, is less combative than predecessors Jeff Zucker, now NBC Entertainment president, Steve Friedman, who now works with Bryant Gumbel on a PBS series, and Shelley Ross, the executive producer of ABC’s “Good Morning America,” where Mr. Touchet spent 51/2 years as a producer. That’s not his style. But when pressed about whether he’s combative enough for the often-ferocious morning-show wars, he said: “We all run the gamut.” Mr. Touchet has an affinity for morning news shows. In the early ’90s, he was a producer in Washington on WTTG-TV’s “Fox Morning News,” which had a very inside-the-Beltway focus.
He plans to marry Nell O’Hara, who works on Food Network’s “Molto Mario,” on Aug. 16. “We are planning a very small wedding out at the beach,” Mr. Touchet said.
TelevisionWeek: How does it feel to have the weight of NBC News’ cash cow on your shoulders?
Tom Touchet: It feels great. I don’t normally think of it that way. It’s a really fun show to work on, and the staff is really great, on-air and off-air.
TVWeek: Do you start out as a caretaker and then put your brand on the show?
Mr. Touchet: I don’t think you can be a caretaker of this show. It has always been a trendsetter, and it has always been the best show to watch because of its mix of news, of information, of consumer stories, of entertainment. They made sure before they hired me, and I make sure as I’m here, that that’s the role this show continues to have.
The great thing, at least it made me feel comfortable, about the [interview] process was that it was incredibly thorough. I met with so many people. I did so many different proposals I felt by the end it wasn’t one thing [that secured the job]. They knew and I knew I had this blueprint I had written myself. They knew exactly what I wanted to do. And I did too.
TVWeek: So are you framing new walls? Considering a new roof?
Mr. Touchet: The show is successful. Jeff Zucker put together this thing with four amazing people at the front of it. My job is to keep interested, keep the producers interested, keep striving to do new things. It’s not a different “Today” show. That’s not our goal.
We are continually adding touches here and there. We are continually experimenting with things and people to make the show better and better. The first question every morning show producer asks themselves is `What is the `Today’ show doing, and what are we doing next?’
We have made an active effort to do more news, to do harder news, to do it earlier in the show and later as well. We’ve been successful at that. We’ve gotten the anchors back on news stories. We sent Katie to Saudi Arabia before the war. Ann’s been out on ships. Matt was in Qatar. We’ve made a real effort to integrate more news.
TVWeek: Aside from it being the `Today’ show, how do you differentiate the show?
Mr. Touchet: `Today’ is the trademark. I watch our show, and if it is good, I know it. I have never been one to turn left, turn right during the show and wonder what anybody else is doing. Whenever we’re looking at how to stack the show, I only care about how it fits and works for our show.
TVWeek: Ratings. How minutely do you parse them? How seriously do you take them on a day-to-day basis?
Mr. Touchet: I look at them. But honestly, I know when our show’s been good, and sometimes that doesn’t necessarily translate in daily ratings. I think it’s more important to pay attention to the long-term vision.
TVWeek: Is the period of adjustment over, and who has adjusted more: you to `Today,’ whose veteran staff can be a tough crowd, or `Today’ to you?
Mr. Touchet: There was a period of adjustment that actually went quicker than I thought. The staff was great when I came in. I met individually with each and every staff member and heard what they wanted and what they thought needed to be fixed. In that process, they were much more giving than I expected. Everybody has been very helpful. It is a very different place. I was pleasantly surprised to see how different a place it was from other places I have worked. I didn’t mean that directly about anybody.
TVWeek: The morning shows have sometimes gone through spells in which their executive producers are combative. Your style does not seem to be theirs. (Mr. Touchet laughs.) What is going to happen the first time one show’s helicopter is hovering over another show’s concert or there’s some real skullduggery involving a big-get guest?
Mr. Touchet: I’m an aggressive guy, and I’m certainly a competitive guy. I just like to channel it into making our show the best. Personal style? I think you’d be mistaken thinking I’m not competitive.
TVWeek: Where do morning shows in general go from here?
Mr. Touchet: What’s my cagiest answer? I don’t like to tip my hand. We have definite designs for stuff coming up that will be much different. I loved `Trading Places.’ That was so much fun. We had a lot of fun. I loved our cabbie. He was the nicest guy.
TVWeek: Where in the world is your head on `Where in the World Is Matt Lauer?’ He has said he doesn’t want to pack his bags again. Are we going to see him making another schlep around the world?
Mr. Touchet: The whole thing with `Where in the World’ is to keep it fresh. It’s such a great concept. We’re going to keep it fresh and new and different. Matt and Katie-they’ve all offered to do whatever, as long as we can make it different and fun and interesting. They’ve been incredibly giving that way.