- - Wednesday, May 8, 2013

TOP OF THE MORNING: INSIDE THE CUTTHROAT WORLD OF MORNING TV
By Brian Stelter
Grand Central, $28, 320 pages

It reads more like “The Heart of Darkness,” this searing account of life at the top of the television jungle.

What most people see on network television are serenely smiling anchors skilled in scanning teleprompters to bring viewers news of events ranging from wars and multiple murders to obese cats. What Brian Stelter sees, and his book, “Top of the Morning,” shows is a cutthroat universe also oddly reminiscent of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” Mr. Stelter pulls back the curtains and exposes a savage corporate world that might have been inhabited by the Sopranos.

Mr. Stelter, who covers the television industry for The New York Times, has made devastating use of the access granted him in the control rooms of NBC and ABC. His book demolishes the concept that morning news shows operate as “family.” Instead, he demonstrates that they are developed around anchors who will do anything they can to maintain their status. Keep in mind these people at the industry’s highest level make more than $5 million a year.

In fact, Matt Lauer, the benignly smiling veteran host of the “Today” show, makes $20 million a year, owns an estate in the Hamptons and a luxury apartment in New York. With respect to the decline and fall of dethroned “Today” co-host Ann Curry, Mr. Stelter notes that one of the problems she faced was that Mr. Lauer just didn’t like her. In television, often that is all it takes to force a departure. There is always someone waiting in the wings — when Ms. Curry fled in tears from the “Today” show, she was immediately replaced by Savannah Guthrie. So far, Ms. Guthrie has won the approval of Mr. Lauer, but she has not reversed the losing streak of “Today,” which after 16 winning years has found itself overtaken by ABC’s “Good Morning America.” There have been rumors that even Mr. Lauer may not be immortal in television terms.

Mr. Stelter points out, “The one problem you can’t solve by throwing money at [a show] is chemistry, the elusive quality that most discussions about the medium of television center around . A lot of what we mean by chemistry is ineffable. You know it when you see it, but you can’t say what it is.”

As an example, he cites Ms. Curry’s flunking the chemistry test on her first appearance as co-host in 2011. Officially announced by Mr. Lauer as his new partner, Ms. Curry said, “I feel like the high school computer nerd who was just asked to the prom by the quarterback of the football team.”

The author comments, “This wasn’t just disingenuous. It was painful to endure.” Especially for Mr. Lauer, who had been very comfortable with the self-assured Meredith Viera, Ms. Curry’s predecessor. Ms. Curry’s awkward debut as the latest television princess apparently was the beginning of what was dubbed Operation Bambi which, put bluntly, meant there was a hit put on her. Jim Bell, the powerful producer of the “Today” show was one of the first to recognize the problem and was Ms. Curry’s most dangerous antagonist. Mr. Stelter emphasizes there was nothing lighthearted or satirical about Operation Bambi. It was, he suggested, analogous to a major wartime operation and just as earnest.

“Ask what 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,” the author asserts.

He emphasizes that “Today” and “Good Morning America” are “the pinnacle of the television profession” and are the profit centers of the news divisions, subsidizing the day’s news coverage.

What most people outside the business don’t understand, he continues, is the amount that the winning show can extract from advertisers. In 2011, “Today” took in almost $500 million, $150 million more than “GMA,” and “Today” had the upper hand in the crucial booking of A-list celebrities. It still called itself “America’s first family.” That was “how high the risks were,” writes Mr. Stelton, who reminds readers that the rules of morning TV were also changing as it found itself in competition with cable TV, the Internet and cellphones.

The only flicker of compassion in this chronicle of relentless ambition regards the case of Robin Roberts, a popular ABC anchor. Even television executives hesitated before reacting with the expected callousness to this gallant woman who was struggling with cancer. Yet the book tells the reader perhaps more than he wants to know about just how tough television can be.

Getting to the top of a profession too often is a precursor to sliding all the way down a greasy pole, and even those who only sit and watch must be aware of the number of anchors who have come and gone without warning or explanation. This book tells you how it can and does happen.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.