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Oh, what a thrill it is to solve, or even to think you've solved, a large, long-standing, and most of all very public problem! So it was with a sense of welling satisfaction, and a growing warmth that spread through his broad bosom like the aftereffect of a double jigger of single malt scotch, taken at the end of one of those five-hundred-dollar TV executive lunches that we're told don't happen anymore, but that most certainly do, at places like La Grenouille and the Four Seasons, every damn day, that a certain producer at NBC came to the realization, in January 2012, that he did after all know how to steer that tsunami-tossed cruise ship of a television enterprise known as the Today show into smoother seas.
Yes. He. Jim Bell. Had. The. Answer.
To be clear, this was not exactly a eureka moment for Bell. The forty-four-year-old Harvard-educated son of an attorney at General Electric had at that point been in charge of the most valuable franchise in morning television for more than six years. He'd identified what he saw as The Problem several months ago, even whispered about it to his friends, risking a leak that could lead to truly disastrous headlines—but it was only now that a plan crystallized, more or less, in his mind, and he realized that it was time to turn a nagging awareness into an act. Time to do something.
In the TV world, as you may know, "to do something" often means "to fire someone." A member of the Today show "family" was going down, Jack.
And so it was, unbeknownst even to the members of the "family," that a plot was hatched, a plot in some ways similar to the plots one reads about in those raised-letter paperbacks one buys at the airport, or sees in old Steve McQueen movies. It would feature clandestine meetings, a Greek chorus of naysayers proclaiming it far too risky, an unstoppable momentum, a cold-hearted exterminator, devilishly handsome men, alluring and dangerous women, and even, yes, a name. Let's call it—as Jim Bell did—Operation Bambi.
If that leads you to think there was something lighthearted or self-effacing about Bell's scheme, it shouldn't. The title was not satirical. Operation Bambi may have been far less important in the general sweep of history, but it was no less earnest an endeavor than the Nazis' Operation Sea Lion or America's Operation Desert Storm.
Still, what are we to think when what is essentially a corporate personnel decision is dressed up with a kind of dashing, pseudo-military moniker?
One is that while morning TV is created mostly for women, it is, even at this late date, quite obviously managed mostly by men—men who like to think in terms of war, sabotage, and, well, embarrassing James Bond–y names for stuff they do in the office.
The other thing we can take from Operation Bambi is a lesson about sleep deprivation. This is something to keep in mind as you read this book, or think about this genre in general. The subtle but sometimes strikingly weird effects of sleep deprivation can be seen everywhere in the world of morning TV, and they make people do ... interesting things. Meredith Vieira recognized it when she left Today in 2011: "When you're tired all the time, you just don't feel well. It's easy to gain weight; it's easy to get depressed. And there's anxiety." And no amount of money can cure exhaustion. Though many have tried. Network morning TV hosts are, almost by definition, millionaires: several make north of five million dollars a year and one, Matt Lauer, the longest-serving and most successful of them all, makes more than twenty million. They work for producers who make far less, though those producers don't have to do what hosts do: appear alive and alert and attractive on the air every single morning, no matter how sleepy or stressed or ugly they really feel. Not to put too fine a point on it, when you're dealing with a lot of rich folks whose alarm clocks go off at three thirty in the morning day after day, some crazy shit is going to go down.
For example, Operation Bambi.
The tongue-in-cheek name came to Bell honestly enough, when a staffer asked whether removing this person would be like "killing Bambi." The question highlighted something Bell already knew: that this would not be just another ouster. It would be big news, in the business pages of The New York Times and in the celebrity weeklies, and, if not handled correctly by both NBC and the victim, a potentially fatal blow to many people's careers. It would be discussed around water coolers, on Facebook and Twitter, in hair salons and restaurants and gyms—wherever plugged-in people, especially plugged-in women, congregate. That's why the severing had to be handled very cleverly, very carefully, so smartly that when it was over, and despite what might get written on TMZ or Gawker, neither he nor his network would seem mean, and the question of jumped-or-was-pushed would remain at least a bit murky. That's why it needed to be not just a "clean break" or pink slip or that classic cop-out, the phone call to the agent, but something layered and nuanced and, well, an Operation. Heck, with a little luck, he might even be able to give a reasonable observer the impression that the victim had been promoted—that the job they'd dreamed about had finally landed in their lap! That they'd no longer have to go to bed at nine p.m., dread the alarm clock at three thirty a.m., or tolerate strangers' questions about their strange sleep patterns!
Elegant executions had been done before. When ABC nudged Good Morning America cohost Joan Lunden out the door in the late 1990s, she came out and claimed it was her doing, saying in a statement, "I have asked the executives of ABC to give me a chance to do something I've never done: wake up my own children with a smile, while they're still children." Here's what Lunden now says really happened: "I called up and I said, 'Look, you guys, let's just say I want to leave. I'd rather leave with dignity; I don't want to go to war with you guys; and it certainly behooves you guys not to make it look like you're replacing me with a thirty-year-old look-alike of me.' So we all agreed." And the part about waking up her children with a smile? Nowadays she jokes, "I'm here to tell you that morning with children is highly overrated!"
But viewers bought her statement at the time. In this nearsighted business, that's what matters most. The tearless termination was to the TV executive what the eighty-yard, post-two-minute-warning drive was to the football quarterback: a way to show his mettle. Bell was a pro. He could do this thing.
Of course, there were other possible outcomes as well, once Operation Bambi got rolling. Anyone who remembered the beyond-awkward transition from Jane Pauley to Deborah Norville on that same Today show in 1989 knew that the ousting of a familiar TV face—which ultimately was what this operation was all about—could also be horribly bungled. Things often turn out poorly when male television executives play chess with female personalities, moving them on, off, and around the set of a show that three million female viewers think of as theirs. Go figure.
Still, Bell, too, felt inextricably wound up in the Today show's fortunes and he might have thought that he could deftly remove the cancer that was steadily killing the show—cohost Ann Curry, as you no doubt guessed a while back—without traumatizing the surrounding tissue. And he might have thought this for a couple of reasons. One was that while his boss, NBC News president Steve Capus, did not agree that Curry should be forced out, Capus's boss Steve Burke did. Burke had a row all to himself on the intimidating NBC organizational chart, a row at the top. Burke was the chief executive of NBCUniversal, the man with the ultimate say over what happened on Today. And Burke said he backed Bell's plan.
Another reason for Bell's confidence was reinforced on the show every day, every time Curry stumbled through a transition or awkwardly whispered to a guest. He felt that her sheer badness as a broadcaster was apparent to all, and that a "promotion" to a better job that allowed her to "sleep in" and, of course, "spend more time with her family" would be greeted with a national sigh of relief.
Bell was just doing his job, which was to cure the show of problems as they arose and to maintain it in a state of apple-cheeked health, tasks that, if you consulted the record, he'd carried out admirably since inheriting the show in 2005. Cancer metaphors aside, Today, at that point, still had a record of performance that stoked envy throughout the television world. It had been number one in viewers, and number one in the coveted twenty-five-to-fifty-four age group known in industry lingo as "the demo," for more than eight hundred weeks in a row. Read that again: eight hundred weeks. If that sounds high to you, imagine how much higher it sounds to the staff of ABC's Good Morning America, who start every week with the knowledge that they are going to get whacked.
The fabled "streak," as everyone called it, had started in 1995 when Jeff Zucker was the executive producer of Today. Zucker had taken over Today in 1992 at the tender age of twenty-six, at a time when the show was still struggling to recover from the Norville disaster. The idiom "burning the candle at both ends" might as well have been coined for Zucker, as evinced by his rapidly receding hairline. What Today enjoyed now was the TV equivalent of Joe DiMaggio's 1941 fifty-six-game hitting streak, a number one record that seemed—to some, for a while—as if it would never be broken. You don't achieve this kind of success by accident. You do it by consistently informing and entertaining your viewers. But wait, there's more! Because this is morning television, you also do it by hoodwinking the Nielsen raters, figuring out sneaky ways to pay guests for interviews, sabotaging the competition, and spending a good deal of time and energy trying to divert attention from your stars' sexual peccadilloes, marital problems, and monstrous personalities. So, like Zucker and others before him and like his counterparts at other networks, Bell was both doctor and witch doctor, fixing what was wrong, but sometimes dabbling in the dark TV arts, or at least looking the other way when his valued underlings did.
Let's put this in perspective. Jim Bell does not under normal circumstances strike the people he works with, or the reporters who cover television, as a cynic, an a-hole, or a backstabber. To the contrary, he is, according to the testimony of many who know him well, a terribly nice guy, the kind who takes the time to e-mail a list of must-eats to a reporter who's drinking his way through Barcelona on vacation. (Let me take this opportunity to thank him again for pointing the way to Euskal Etxea and Cal Pep.) A lot has been made of Bell's physical size (at six foot four, he can be imposing) and his history as a Harvard football player, including by him. At his first meeting with Lauer, he famously described himself to the anchor as "a big guy who likes big challenges." But Bell is also an unusually intelligent man, even if he sometimes conceals it behind his laconic sports-producer persona. He has a polymath's fascination with the wide world of news and pop culture that Today inhabits, and a reputation as a straight shooter, inspiring deep loyalty among his senior staff. Though he has struggled at times to lose weight, he seems not to sweat at work. "You'd want him as your platoon leader in the trenches," said one of his deputies. "The guy is just totally unflappable."
Bell cracks jokes in the male-dominated control room with the best of them. He critiques his lower-rated competitors with a smile, almost always seeming to be an inch or two above it all, which he literally is. But by January he was showing signs of being affected by the grind and the burdens of morning TV, and, well, things happen. No wonder, then, that the friend who called him "unflappable" wouldn't put his name to the quote, or that Bell wouldn't put his control room jokes on the record so that they could be printed here. This is a genre that has claimed many victims, starting with Dave Garroway, the first host of the Today show when it premiered in 1952, the man whose on-air sidekick was not a smart-'n-sassy woman or a warm-'n-fuzzy weatherman but a chimpanzee named J. Fred Muggs. Garroway, perhaps not the most mentally healthy person to begin with, succumbed to the pressure of filling all that airtime, day after day, in a fascinating way. He saw ghosts, felt he was being followed everywhere, and eventually, long after he left the show, shot himself in the head.
No one was suggesting that Bell was about to go all Dave Garroway on himself or even pull an Arthur Godfrey (in 1953, morning show host Godfrey fired his popular house singer Julius LaRosa on the air; all these years later it still makes for a cringe-inducing moment). But tough stuff had indeed been happening on Bell's watch. The ratings for the Today show had started to erode even before Vieira left in June 2011; her exit and Curry's entrance sped up the trend, thus helping the long-suffering second-place GMA creep closer to first. As if the vulnerability of the streak, now nearly sixteen years long, wasn't enough to quicken the pulse, the biggest star of the show—Lauer—was thinking about leaving Today at the end of his contract cycle. The fact that he was being forced to sit next to Curry was one motivating factor for Lauer—it's hard enough to wake up in the middle of the night when you adore your coworker, and it's even harder when you don't. Lauer was firmly in the "don't" camp. But there were other factors, too, like his wife, Annette, who had stayed with him despite several rounds of very public, very painful rumors about his extramarital affairs. Annette wanted him to retire, and some days he felt the same impulse. This was hard work, much harder than most viewers ever realized. If he left, what would happen to Today? Bell had no obvious successor lined up.
Given that Bell faced so many huge problems in such a short time, could anyone criticize him too harshly for coming up with Operation Bambi? Convinced, as he was, that Curry had to go, the operation as he saw it had three parts: a) convince Lauer to extend his contract, which was set to expire in December 2012, b) remove Curry from the chair next to Lauer's, and c) replace Curry with the up-and-coming cohost of the nine a.m. hour of Today, Savannah Guthrie. Yes, this was all very perilous, but as still another kind of doctor, Hippocrates, told us, desperate times call for desperate measures.
But what is it that makes morning show people so desperate, so murderous of their colleagues and competitors, so willing to bend the rules? It's all because the stakes are so high. Today and GMA are the pinnacle of the television profession. For NBC and ABC, respectively, they are the profit centers of the news divisions that produce them; they basically subsidize the rest of the day's news coverage. In the Most Valuable Viewer category, otherwise known as "the demo," every hundred thousand viewers represent roughly ten million dollars in advertising revenue yearly. In other words: convince one hundred thousand more MVVs to watch every day and make ten million dollars. Spur the same number to stop watching and watch the ad dollars evaporate. No wonder the producers of these shows pop Tums as they await the overnight ratings. Their jobs and the jobs of many beneath them hang in the balance. And besides, media moguls don't like to lose.
What people not in the business sometimes don't get is that being number one in the ratings has a value all its own. Not just in the amount that the winning show's salespeople can extract from advertisers—though there's that: Today took almost five hundred million dollars in 2011, 150 million more than GMA—but in reputation, in influence, in sheer television industry power. Today had the upper hand in booking A-list celebrities. It had the clout to insist that a politician talk to Lauer before anyone else. It had the right to call itself "America's first family."
Excerpted from Top of the Morning by Brian Stelter. Copyright © 2014 Brian Stelter. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted May 17, 2013
I looked forward to this book, as the author is a TV writer for the NYTimes. He has a long way to go to reach the level of Bill Carter. The book is mostly a rehash of Tabloid stories. He obviously spent a lot of time with the GMA group, but i didn't need to hear about the size of George Stephanopoulus' bed! I found this very poorly written as well;too many bad metaphors and cliches. The author tried very hard to be clever, but most of time, he falls flat. Even the Times gave this book a bad review. Read the TV column in new York magazine instead.
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Posted June 7, 2013
After the first 50 pages I kept thinking this isn't book worthy, this information could have easily been told in a magazine article in Vanity Fair or similar. After a about 100 pages I put it down, because it never got any better. Just couldn't finish it.
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Posted May 23, 2013
With juicy insider details of the morning television ratings war between "Good Morning America" (ABC) and the "Today Show" (NBC), "Top of the Morning" offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the world of morning news programs and the lives of those involved in them. Offering a smattering of historical perspective along with a wealth of current drama, this book depicts the sort of maneuvering, positioning, and jostling among anchors and those waiting to be anchors, producers and news executives reminiscent of more dramatized tales such as the life of Jessica Savitch in "Up Close and Personal."
Central to Stelter's storyline is the quick rise and fall of Ann Curry, news-reader-then-anchor of the "Today Show," coupled with the rise and rise of Robin Roberts of "GMA." As in many books centered on current events, explanation and analysis of these phenomena lack depth and focus more on individual perception. However, this lack of depth fits neatly within the scope of the title and does not weaken the story--rather it sets up the opportunity for a more in-depth examination of the strategies, practices and subsequent performance of these morning news behemoths as they continue to navigate the fragmenting and changing world of broadcasting and cable news.
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Posted December 27, 2013
Really enjoyed the back-door politics of network TV. NBC seems to have a death wish when it comes to mis-guided moves on high-profile TV personalities (see Carson, Leno, Pauley, etc.)
My only criticism is I would like to have had a reference page -- a "Players Guide" -- similar to Top of the Rock in order to keep track of VP of this or SVP of that, etc.
Posted May 27, 2013
Posted May 17, 2013
I found the content credible but not bias. A smooth flowing read with no zigzagging subplots. I highly recommend this book.
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Posted May 7, 2013
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Posted June 18, 2013
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Posted May 1, 2013
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Posted August 24, 2013
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Posted July 11, 2013
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