Waving the ‘Today’ Banner

Jul 18, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Three months after becoming executive producer of NBC’s “Today,” Jim Bell finds the learning curve less steep and the wakeup routine less daunting. The bank of stories and commitments that were in the pipeline when he replaced Tom Touchet has just about been exhausted.

The “checkerboard” that displays plans for days and weeks ahead reflects the changing voice of the show, which Mr. Bell wants to sound less scripted and more fun-when that’s not at the expense of the news.

“I feel like we’re there,” Mr. Bell told The Insider last week, when “Today” celebrated its 500th consecutive week as the No. 1 morning show.

It’s an achievement unlikely to ever be duplicated, especially in an increasingly fragmented morning media landscape. “Even if it were still a three-horse race, it would still be difficult to achieve,” Mr. Bell said.

The data from Nielsen Media Research for the 500th win showed that “Today” averaged 5.2 million viewers the week of the July 4 holiday. ABC’s “Good Morning America,” which had whittled “Today’s ” lead to as few as 40,000 viewers before Mr. Bell took the reins, averaged 4.8 million viewers. That’s not as big a lead as the 732,000-viewer gap “Today” opened up mid-June, but it does make the breathing a little easier for Mr. Bell, a veteran sports producer, and Phil Griffin, the former MSNBC prime-time executive who also assumed his new post as senior VP and executive in charge of “Today” in April.

Mr. Bell is a nice guy. Nary a negative item about him has been printed since he took over the show, which has provided plenty of grist for the New York tabloid gossip mills over the past few years (and through two executive producers, Mr. Touchet and Jonathan Wald, who had the misfortune to follow Jeffrey Zucker, who was so successful as executive producer of “Today” that NBC Universal Chairman Bob Wright named him president of the NBC Universal Television Group).

So Mr. Bell makes clear that the 500-win milestone is a tribute to all who went before him and Mr. Griffin.

But he clearly enjoys seeing the show morph and the off-camera team, which includes former “Maury” executive producer Amy Rosenblum in charge of the laboratory-ish third hour, bond.

Michael Weisman, the Emmy-winning sports producer who struck out with “The Jane Pauley Show” last season, was named executive producer of the NBC Universal Television Group. He will rove and report to Mr. Zucker. First stop: “Today,” where his love of live programming should be well received.

Indeed, the chemistry in the control room is one of the barometers of change that Mr. Bell trusts.

With the front four of Katie Couric, Matt Lauer, Al Roker and Ann Curry loosening up, the control room is listening closely and limbering up to be able to react to the on-camera chemistry.

“I think there’s a good level of comfort,” Mr. Bell said.

The ‘Beat’ Goes On

In what threatens to become a rite of summer, the crew of the weekly “Beat the Press” edition of WGBH-TV’s “Greater Boston” will be in Washington to accept the Arthur Rowse Award for press criticism on TV or radio from the National Press Club. “Greater Boston” host and Executive Editor Emily Rooney has accepted the award three times in the past four years.

Executive producer Jon Carroll, former ABC News producer Callie Crossley and Boston Phoenix media critic Mark Jurkowitz are regulars in the ensemble, which tackles topics ranging from confidential sources and shield laws to a hoax pulled by a Boston city father who took pictures off a porn Web site and passed them off at a press conference as photos depicting American soldiers raping Iraqi woman.

“I think this thing could have a national audience,” said Ms. Rooney, who was for 15 years the highly regarded news director at Hearst-Argyle’s Boston ABC affiliate WCVB-TV before becoming, for too brief a time in the early ’90s, the first female executive producer of “ABC World News Tonight.” Then she spent a couple of years as the director of political coverage and special events for Fox News before returning to Boston and “Greater Boston.”

The Rowse Prize brings with it a prize of $1,000. “I always have a party at my house,” Ms. Rooney said.