- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 26, 2012

NEW YORK — The “Today” show’s top producer on Wednesday defended Matt Lauer against stories that have portrayed the anchor as difficult to deal with during the show’s slide in the ratings.

The longtime morning champ has slipped behind ABC’s “Good Morning America” in the ratings over recent months, after more than 15 years of being the unquestioned leader in the morning. The new ratings order has solidified since Ann Curry’s tearful exit as Lauer’s co-host in June.

“Matt has been the heart and soul of the show for a long, long time, and any of the stuff out that has portrayed him in an unflattering light as being difficult to work with is patently false and it’s been tough to deal with,” said Jim Bell, “Today” executive producer.

One tabloid report last week described Lauer as an “anchor animal” who berates the staff and inserts himself into show decisions, which Bell described as “patently false.” He also denied an online report that Lauer would be asked to take a pay cut if the show’s ratings don’t improve. “Today” has also consistently shot down stories that Lauer played a behind-the-scenes role in Savannah Guthrie’s replacement of Curry.

Asked if viewers were taking Curry’s dismissal out on “Today,” Bell said that “it’s more complex than that.”

“Any time there is a change, especially in the morning, it takes a while for people to process that change and we’re still going through that,” Bell said. “That’s OK. We understand. We get it. We love our team and we really feel positive about the show we are doing and we are taking the long view here.”

“Today” has actually taken pride in seamless anchor transitions in the past, such as when Meredith Vieira replaced Katie Couric, Curry replaced Vieira and Lauer took over for Bryant Gumbel. This one hasn’t worked, at least for now.

Bell denied reports that he would leave “Today” for another job at NBC, saying “this is the best job in the world.”

After a 17-year winning streak in the ratings, “GMA” overtook “Today” during a couple of weeks last spring. With the exception of two weeks when “Today” broadcast from the London Olympics, the ABC show has won consistently since Curry’s dismissal, by margins as much as 800,000 viewers.

“GMA” has succeeded with a lighter, more pop culture-oriented show. Its on-air team of George Stephanopoulos, Robin Roberts, Josh Elliott and Lara Spencer has clicked during NBC’s turmoil. “Today” has long been a huge cash cow for NBC, and a permanent change in the morning’s pecking order would have big financial implications.

“For a long time, they tried to do a version of the ‘Today’ show,” Bell said of ABC. “It didn’t work well, so they have tried to do a different show. We are different shows right now. Despite however that might be working in the short term, for our show, it’s in our best interests to be who we are and not try to do what someone else is doing.”

Asked for comment, ABC spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said: “I think the audience has spoken loud and clear about its preference in the morning.”

He said “Today,” which featured a Curry interview with Libyan President Mohammed Magarief on Wednesday, will be making its differences with “Good Morning America” more apparent in coming months.

“While we recognize in the short term we’re going through a difficult period, we’re not going to compound it by suddenly doing a different show from the one we all feel good about, which is a smart show, a relevant show and an important show to do,” he said.

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