On Jan. 6, Matt Lauer will mark his 10-year anniversary as co-anchor of NBC’s “Today” morning show.
It’s a gig he took after several years of doing double-and sometimes triple-duty for WNBC-TV in New York and across the street at “Today,” where he started as the news reader and substitute for predecessor Bryant Gumbel. It was a welcome break in a string of bad luck professionally and choices made for money.
Mr. Lauer, who turned 49 in December, sat down last week with TelevisionWeek National Editor Michele Greppi to talk about how close he came to bouncing his rent check, how without a well-timed break he may have ended up raising horses in Vermont-and how much he likes his current job.
He also talked about why the new multiyear contract he signed in 2006 is likely to be his last for “Today.” Mr. Lauer declined to discuss the terms of his contract-said by some to have put him in the $13 million- to $15 million-a-year club his former on-air partner Katie Couric joined while co-anchoring the top-rated morning show.
Mr. Lauer does, however, talk happily about how he likes to spend time with his family, which in November expanded when he and Dutch-born wife Annette became parents for the third time in five years. With the arrival this year of Thijs (pronounced Tice), older son Jack Matthew, 5, and sister Romy, 3, have a new little brother.
That focus on family explains why, in his neat dressing room/office upstairs over Studio 1A, the photo front and center on his desk features Elmo and a little Lauer.
TelevisionWeek: Ten years. Go back 10 years. Did you think you’d still be here?
Matt Lauer: I’m sure I thought, “Boy, I hope I’m still here in 10 years.” But I think my first contract here was three years. I thought the challenge was daunting. I was taking over for Bryant Gumbel. He was storied. He was legendary. … I remember coming to terms with that first three-year contract and thinking, “Well, you know what? If I can fool ’em for three years, that would be good, that would be a major accomplishment. If I can hang onto this job and I don’t ruin this show, and the ratings don’t go down the tube in three years, that’s kind of an accomplishment.”
Keep in mind where I was at that point in my life. I had come off of about four or five cancellations and firings in a row prior to that short stint over at WNBC-TV, which went great. My other career moments in time had gone real well too until someone pulled the plug. I always thought I was doing fine, and then someone said, “Oh, by the way, your show is canceled,’ or, “We’re not renewing your contract.” In my mind I still am today living with the idea that it never is a sure thing. It can always be taken away from you.
TVWeek: Have you ever thought about what might have happened had it not been for that phone call from WNBC?
Mr. Lauer: I think I could have eked out a living. Would I have been happy? No. At some point might I have chucked it for something simpler in Vermont- I love horses, raising horses. Or I was a fishing guide for a while. Going off to Maine? Might I have done that? Maybe. …
TVWeek: How far ahead do you look? You have a contract. You never talk about contracts, but can you tap on the floor to indicate how many years you’ve got left on the contract?
Mr. Lauer: I have several years left. It’s a new contract. That’s the time period I concentrate on now. I don’t look beyond that. This contract will take me to a length of time on this show that I’ve always kind of loosely talked about as being as long as I would ever want to do the show.
I don’t look ahead professionally. I do look ahead personally.
TVWeek: I’ll ask one question that’s in territory you do not like to address. It sounds like you’re thinking in terms of you and wife Annette being together for a long time.
Mr. Lauer: Yeah. Absolutely. We have had some well-publicized tough times I think most couples go through-I think ours were just more publicized, but, yeah, absolutely.
TVWeek: There’s been talk about “Today” adding a fourth hour.
Mr. Lauer: Yeah, for a long time now there’s been a lot of talk about it. I have mixed emotions about it, and I’ve made it fairly clear. I had mixed emotions about a third hour. I’ve always wanted to leave people wanting more rather than less.
So if the smart people running this news division can do it in a way where it doesn’t dilute the brand, then fine. I understand the strategic reasons for wanting to do it. I still want them to think it’s an appointment. I still want them to think it’s special when 7 o’clock rolls around and that cold open runs and they say “This is `Today’ on NBC.”
TVWeek: What about the competition with “Good Morning America”?M
Mr. Lauer: We’ve just done something on this show that I’m not sure has gotten quite the amount of ooohs and ahhhhs that I expected it to get.
Having lost [Katie Couric], probably the most talked-about, talented morning show host that’s ever done this job, she went away and we expanded the ratings. I think it’s such a credit to Meredith [Vieira] and the rest of the team here.
If you look at us about four months into Meredith’s tenure here, [we have a ratings lead of] about a million viewers. If you go back to those weeks when they got [“Today’s” lead] under a million, like when ABC had the finale of “Dancing With the Stars,” which was huge, there are just some things when we throw up our hands and go, “We know what’s going to happen.”
TVWeek: How have the co-anchor dynamics changed?
Mr. Lauer: I always felt as if I knew what Katie’s strengths and weaknesses were and what my strengths and weaknesses were. … [Former “Today” executive producer] Steve Friedman said once in an interview that every show like this has to have a reactor and an actor. There’s got to be the person who’s willing to throw themselves out there and person who’s willing to react. It’s a little Burns and Allen, a little Rowan and Martin, but in a journalistic way. I was always comfortable being the reactor. I’m not a guy who goes into a party and puts the lampshade on my head. With Meredith, I’ve had to change my role a bit. We are now more the same. I’m also very comfortable with that.
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