Gumbel leaves 'Today' on top TV: After 15 years on NBC's top-rated morning show, journalist sees a different tomorrow.

January 03, 1997|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Almost 15 years since he first sat in it, Bryant Gumbel is today vacating the host chair on NBC's "Today," leaving under his own power, with nary a hint of the cattle prod used on some of his predecessors.

Did anyone ever suspect it would happen any other way? After the debacle that followed their roughshod treatment of Jane Pauley a few years back, there's no way the honchos at NBC were going to push Gumbel out the door. And any attempt to treat him the way Deborah Norville was treated, hung out to dry as the sacrificial lamb to her bosses' boneheadedness, probably would have resulted in bloodshed at Rockefeller Center.

No, you always knew the supremely confident Gumbel would leave on his own terms, probably at the height of his power, with his formidable skills and ponderous dignity intact.

Which is exactly what's happening. When Matt Lauer takes over as "Today" host on Monday, he does so with his predecessor's blessing. Although only 48, Gumbel announced at the beginning of last year that he would leave "Today" at the end of it -- for no better reason than that he wanted to. Since then, he's been performing a sort of goodbye tour of the airwaves, bringing in all sorts of big-name interviewees and granting the occasional interview.

Heck, the guy's so confident in his abilities, so sure of his future and his bankability, that he doesn't even have another job lined up. ABC and CBS are courting him with all sorts of prime-time offers, and NBC has made no secret of its desire to keep him around. But so far, Gumbel has kept his mouth shut, content to watch the accolades pile up and the rumor mill grind away.

A decade-and-a-half ago, Gumbel started as a sports reporter thrown into the lion's den of news. "How will he ever survive?" some pundits, the more polite ones, asked. "How can we take him seriously?" others wondered.

What's more, Gumbel was a black man in a high-profile job previously reserved for whites. He was breaking all sorts of new ground, and many wondered if the task would be too much for him.

But Gumbel proved a survivor. He knew he was not exactly lovable, knew there were a lot of people out there who found him arrogant, whom he made uncomfortable. But nobody ever questioned his skills as an interviewer: Few TV journalists worked harder to prepare themselves, and even fewer were as willing to ask the tough questions. "Fawning" is an adjective rarely ascribed to Bryant Gumbel.

Sure, there were missteps along the way. His "feud" with David Letterman, which began when the precocious bad boy of late night used a megaphone to disrupt an outdoor taping of "Today," struck some people as egregiously humorless. The famous memo in which he knocked affable weatherman Willard Scott, hero to 100-year-olds everywhere, earned him considerable enmity.

And a tendency to wear his liberal heart on his sleeve earned him brickbats from conservatives. An editorial in the Detroit News last month concluded by lamenting, "Despite his obvious talent, Mr. Gumbel never seemed to rise above his role as a shill for the liberal causes he favored."

But the proof is in the numbers, and Gumbel's numbers have been pretty good. "Today" has been the highest-rated morning program for most of Gumbel's tenure, including every week for ** the past year. Apparently, he never ticked that many people off.

Pub Date: 1/03/97

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