The "Today" show is taking on water in the morning news ratings battle, and it is Ann Curry who's being thrown over the side.
"Today" held the top spot for a remarkable 16 years before stumbling to second place behind "Good Morning America" for a week in April, and it is the woman — always the bridesmaid and never the bride on "Today" — who must take the blame.
Ms. Curry's critics (always quoted anonymously) say that she is cloying and hyper-empathetic when she is interviewing the victim du jour. That she is not engaged when doing the fluffy fashion and food segments. She doesn't have the right chemistry with host Matt Lauer, and she hasn't meshed well with the rest of the "Today" family.
It is the typical stuff you say about a woman in a job performance review, touchy-feely language rarely used when describing a guy's shortcomings. When Mr. Lauer is criticized, for example, it is for being abrasive and combative — not particularly cozy qualities for the small screen but ones that could be construed as a strength in a journalist.
This kind of thing happens all the time in television news. If ratings falter, or fail to improve, it's the woman who takes the hit for the team.
Deborah Norville, who replaced Jane Pauley to disastrous results on "Today." Barbara Walters, whose shotgun wedding to Harry Reasoner on the "ABC Evening News" nearly caused her to have a breakdown. Connie Chung, paired with Dan Rather at CBS until he got her fired. Sally Quinn, who couldn't make the transition from newspapers to television news. Katie Couric, who couldn't move the needle for the "CBS Evening News."
Maybe there is some special ratings tool that measures the credibility deficit of women in television, but I doubt it. If there's a problem, the easy answer is to replace the chick. Preferably with a younger, prettier chick.
But here is the catch. The critics are right about Ms. Curry. And NBC is right to break up this dysfunctional team.
Her emotional connections with her traumatized interviewees — heck, even her interview with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — were too hot for such a cool medium, and it made viewers uncomfortable.
And it certainly looked like sitting next to Matt Lauer made her jumpy. And at other moments, when she was ad-libbing or gesturing or swinging her hair, she just looked awkward. She was hard to watch. And that, of course, was the problem that needed to be fixed.
The gossip is that NBC knew it had made a mistake almost immediately after promoting her last summer to replace the departing Meredith Vieira. But it wasn't until they'd nailed Mr. Lauer in place with a $30-million-a-year contract this spring that they started to make the earth move under Ms. Curry's feet.
The network executives wanted to handle this carefully — which is laughable considering how excruciating her firing-by-a-thousand leaks has become — so as not to upset the Curry fan base, thought to be largely female.
This is pretty typical, too. The boys assumed women would rush to her defense. They don't think we have any discernment beyond blind loyalty to the sisterhood.
You see this assumption play out in politics, too — the idea that women can be counted on to vote in a herd, especially for a woman candidate. It was a mistake to think so when Kathleen Kennedy Townsend ran for governor of Maryland in 2002. And it was a mistake to think so when Hillary Clinton ran for the presidential nomination in 2008.
Do we feel badly for Ann Curry? Sure. She got her dream job, and they started to move her out of it almost immediately. But she has never had Mr. Lauer's skill for seamlessly switching gears from segment to segment. He is powerful, to be sure. But she was always the one who was going to be replaced, and — although the woman in these situations is always dispensable — in this case she was the reason.
Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. Her email is email@example.com.
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