“Please don’t tell me it’s Al Roker. I just couldn’t take that.” That was the beginning of a conversation I overheard in an office building in Queens yesterday. The ladies (all in their mid-thirties) standing around seemed genuinely heartbroken upon hearing the news that NBC Today host Matt Lauer had engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with his colleagues. Hearing that he had a button under his desk to lock the door to his office from the inside—well, it just wasn’t the man they had come to know.
The way they spoke about the longtime news anchor, it was as if he was a friend—maybe an older brother. In reality he could have been their father. But they seemed to know him so well. They were all loyal watchers of the Today show and they seemed convinced—at least until earlier this week—that this gave them insight into Matt Lauer’s personality.
Most grown-ups have figured out by now that movie stars are not really like the people they play on screen. They’ve even learned that reality television doesn’t really have much basis in reality. But news anchors and talk show hosts—we seem to have harbored illusions that they were showing us their authentic selves.
Whenever television executives are trying to fill a slot on one of these shows—particularly one of the daytime shows—there is extensive conversation about the personalities of these hosts, almost as if they will be behaving on television the way they do in the rest of their lives. People seemed surprised that Megyn Kelly seemed to have a different persona on Fox News in the evening than she does on NBC in the morning. But she is first and foremost an entertainer. And she needs to figure out what will entertain her audience.
When it comes to finding the right daytime hosts, the experience of recent years suggests it’s been difficult for executives to find men appropriate for the task. Think of the ever-changing cast of male anchors who followed Regis Philbin on the show he co-hosted with Kelly Ripa. In 2011, when he announced his retirement after twenty-eight years on the air, ABC struggled with trying to find the right replacement. Would it be Neil Patrick Harris or Mario Lopez? Anderson Cooper or Ryan Seacrest? They finally settled on Michael Strahan, who then left, leaving ABC to pay a small fortune to secure Ryan Seacrest.
It is much easier to find female hosts, which might be one reason why women tend to outnumber men on many of these shows now. Even before firing Charlie Rose (also accused of egregious sexual harassment), CBS’s morning show had Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell. Women viewers aren’t as eager to trust a male morning anchor, although once they do they become attached to him (presumably because viewers think they are good judges of the men’s character).
Charlie Gibson hosted Good Morning America from 1987 to 1998. When they tried to bring in someone else, the rankings sank and they eventually brought him back. Even Charlie Rose was brought to the CBS morning show late in his career in order to boost ratings because network executives apparently didn’t think a newer, younger guy would be successful.
The premium placed on male anchors who can work their way into the hearts of female viewers is quite high. Indeed, Lauer may have thought he was irreplaceable, which could explain his behavior. It will almost certainly take a long time for executives at NBC’s Today show to find someone who has the same kind of resonance with female viewers. At least these scandals have taught morning news audiences one thing: Television can mask a lot of deep personal flaws.
Image: YouTube/ABC News