DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Relationship drama, it can certainly lead to big ratings on television. But that was not the case last spring when NBC went through a very public divorce, one that ended up costing valuable viewers at a critical time for the network.
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GREENE: That's Ann Curry who spent more than a decade as news anchor on the morning news show, and then less than a year on the host couch before that moment.
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: ...I'm sorry I couldn't carry the ball over the finish line. But, man, I did try.
GREENE: And we're going to talk more about that moment and other moments on morning news.
Brian Stelter is a media reporter for The New York Times. And today, he's out with a new book called "Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV." And, Brian, thanks for joining us.
BRIAN STELTER: Thanks for having me.
GREENE: You kind of said that this was the beginning of the end for "Today," and its long run as being the highest-rated morning television program. Why was this such a watershed moment?
STELTER: Well, the show had this incredible streak for about 16 years. It had never happened before in television and it probably never will again. The "Today" show started beating "Good Morning America" in 1995 and then beat it every single week until 2012. And it started to lose to "GMA" at the same time it was thinking about removing Ann Curry.
They may have thought that by removing her last year, they would get back to No. 1. But in fact, the opposite happened. They fell further in to second place. And they haven't been able to get out of second place since.
GREENE: In some ways, this doesn't feel all that new. I mean, the news business, morning news, has always been cutthroat. But it seems like, you know, these news networks, it's very much a boys' club - the people who run them. And it's often women, especially when it on the air, who are scrutinized and often who lose their jobs much, much sooner than men.
STELTER: It is surprising to what degree these shows are still produced mostly by men, even though they're made mostly for women. It's a strange situation that I think it does contribute to some of the problems that happened at the "Today" show last year. Some of this was just a PR mistake - they didn't come out and be accountable. They didn't come out and talk about why they made these decisions.
GREENE: Do you feel like all of this might have been handled more respectfully if there had been more women in what is now a very much a boys' club?
STELTER: It's one of those hypotheticals that's impossible to answer. But there is a woman in charge of NBC News now for the first time pretty much ever in the history of the news division. And I have to say the show has made a lot of smart steps since then. May be a coincidence, but I don't think it is.
GREENE: I want to ask you about the book. You sometimes are narrating as a fly on the wall, but sometimes acknowledging your own role in events. I mean, like helping to break the story of Ann Curry being forced out. It's certainly not a first time that a reporter has written a book about what he or she covers. But when it's such as soap opera, I mean how did you kind of find the balance in terms of being part of it, but not being too much character in the whole drama?
STELTER: It was awkward sometimes to feel that I was affecting the outcome in some way. Ann Curry later told her friends that me writing about the fact that she was in negotiations to leave, robbed her of the ability to leave gracefully. But I'd like to think if I hadn't written a story in The New York Times about it, somebody else would have or one of my competitors.
This was bound to leak. The network isn't able to maintain secrecy because people are concerned about the ratings.
GREENE: A lot of the book is scathing about what happened at NBC with the Ann Curry dismissal. Do you worry that it's going to seem like you have an ax to grind when people start reading it?
STELTER: My impression of the show is actually quite positive. It's one of the best brands in America, even though its struggled the past year or so. People want the "Today" show to be great. They want it to be the best it can be. And I think people are now rooting for it.
GREENE: And we should say you grew up a big fan of morning television.
STELTER: I did. I always watched the "Today" show; my mom always watched "Good Morning America." So it was this battle in the house, which I think is like a lot of homes. People have really personal choices they make in the morning. And in fact, MORNING EDITION is one of them. "Today," "GMA," "Fox and Friends," "Squawk Box," "Morning Joe." We feel that we really know the people that join us in the morning for these shows, and that's why it's such an interesting and fraught time of day.
GREENE: Brian Stelter, the world you write about, there's a lot of drama and there is so much money at stake here. Why is there so much pressure on morning television to bring in the big bucks?
STELTER: In this fragmenting media world, if you can have the most viewers, then you're going to be able to charge a premium. And that's what the "Today" show and "Good Morning America" can do. If you can get about 100,000 more women ages 25 to 54 to watch your program in the morning, that's worth about $10 million in advertising revenue.
GREENE: Wow, that's staggering.
STELTER: And if you lose 100,000, you're losing that much advertising revenue.
GREENE: And I was struck that the advertising money coming in from these morning programs is crucial to driving, you know, entire news operations for networks like NBC and ABC.
STELTER: I think this is something that most viewers and readers don't understand, which is that NBC's "Nightly News," "ABC's World News," CBS's "CBS Evening News," all these programs are in effect subsidized by the morning shows, because the morning shows really bring in the bulk of the revenue, and help to provide crews out in the field, covering news for the other programs.
GREENE: You know, in this whole new environment with so many options, I think everyone - and NPR included - we kind of struggle to find the perfect balance, but we had an executive producer here at MORNING EDITION who said we should strive for balance between wonk and whimsy every morning.
GREENE: And I just wonder if, you know, as this competition keeps heating up among news organizations, how does involve? How are we going to see programs like you're talking about change?
STELTER: What we saw with "Good Morning America" the last two years is a pivot more toward entertainment, to the viral videos and the silly, cute animals. The "Today" show has tried to resist going in that direction. I thought the "Today" show last Friday, covering the manhunt in Boston, was at his best. It was showing off its A-team and it's A-game.
When we wake up with our cell phones in the morning and we see the headlines on our phone, and we see the weather, and we see the traffic, what's the point of morning television? Maybe it's going to more about the fun and the friendliness of the cast, delivering you news and delivering you entertainment in a way that makes you comfortable as you're getting dressed and getting ready for work.
GREENE: Given this new crazy media environment, can you say with confidence that these shows will be around in 20 or 30 years?
STELTER: I think for as long as we wake up in the morning, we will have morning television. Now, it may be morning video on our cell phones or on our Google Glasses, but people like to wake up with someone or some group of people in the morning. They like to feel like they're joined by a larger family. There's a lot of companionship that comes from morning television. And that's why I think they'll be with us for a long time, even if they're being delivered to us in different ways.
GREENE: All right, Brian Stelter is a media reporter for The New York Times. His new book is "Top of the Morning."
Brian, thanks so much for talking to us.
STELTER: Thank you.
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GREENE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
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And I'm Steve Inskeep.
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