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The Cutthroat World of Morning TV

New York Times reporter Brian Stelter exposes the dirt and drama behind television’s top shows

When NBC publicly axed Today Show anchor Ann Curry last June, America suddenly got a glimpse into the not-so-glamorous underbelly of morning television. Since then, media outlets have attempted to piece together what exactly happened with Curry, but a single, definitive story never surfaced. Until now. In the new book Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV, The New York Times reporter Brian Stelter reveals everything we don’t see on our favorite morning programs. With unprecedented access to television networks, control rooms and news anchors, the book takes readers behind-the-scenes and explores the challenges and triumphs associated with the morning news business.

Stelter chatted with DuJour about the truth behind Ann Curry’s removal, the anchors that surprised him the most, and why NBC told him he was no longer welcome in their control room.

Walk me through your process every morning when you were researching for the book.
I bought three small TV sets and placed them side-by-side in my bedroom so that I could wake up and watch ABC, CBS and NBC the same way the producers of the shows watch – because they observe things that normal people don’t. I also had a fourth TV for cable news and NY1. I spent more than six months just watching everyday and taking notes. I wanted to learn the rhythms of the show in a way that you can’t by just watching one of them.

Are you a morning person?
No! Since college I’ve been a late sleeper. But once we had the book deal in 2011, I had started dating [NY1 traffic reporter] Jamie Shupak and she has this early morning schedule, so that helped me get acclimated to waking up at 3:30 a.m.

The morning shows don’t typically start until 7 a.m. Why the need to wake up at 3:30?
I wanted to see what that does to you. How anchors and producers feel. Because they make it look so easy and effortless! But it is agonizing. I also found that the best hours to be emailing anchors and producers was between 4-7 a.m., because they’re awake and nobody else is awake. Even though they’re preparing for the show, they’re more likely to reply to your email because their colleagues and families aren’t awake. It was really a great way to get to know sources.

You scored a ton of great interviews. Did you find that people were tight-lipped about everything?
I was struck by how accessible everyone was. When I reached out to the networks about coming into the control rooms they were very supportive. I was able to do an overnight shift at GMA, and that was probably the most helpful of all. So access was not a challenge. Getting people to speak candidly was a challenge. People were happy to talk, but not necessarily talk honestly.

Out of everyone you spoke to – people like Matt Lauer and George Stephanopoulos – who was the most open with you?
Robin Roberts. I talked to her in July or August while she was undergoing chemo but before she went off the show, and she spoke frankly about the process – having to go off GMA, having Katie Couric fill in, how she really felt about that. She was great. I was struck by how genuine she seemed in person every time I saw her. Sometimes from a distance you want to believe [the anchors] are putting on a show, and some people are. But she’s not one of them.

Given the bad press that haunted NBC after the Ann Curry debacle, was the network not as forthcoming?
I had wonderful access at NBC until Ann was removed. They were turning me down toward the end of the year, and frankly, I thought that was really short-sighted.

Why?
Because the Today Show recovering is just as interesting a story as the Today Show faltering. Arguably a more interesting story.

What surprised you the most about the shows?
That there’s so much stage-managing. You don’t want to criticize the anchors for just reading their lines, but a lot of what they do is just read lines. They’re doing it under immense pressure and without sleep, so it is a very difficult job and they deserve to be paid well for it. But sometimes I would look at Matt [Lauer] or George [Stephanopoulos] and I would wonder… Do they enjoy reading these words that someone else wrote? The more enjoyable things for them are interviews, where they get to have control over the situation. There tends to be fewer and fewer of those these days.

What did you learn about the company culture at the networks?
I came away convinced that these shows are at their best when the hosts actually like each other. I know it sounds obvious, but there was such a difference last year between Today and GMA for that reason. In 2012, the hosts were hanging out… and getting drunk together. It’s not unlike any other office. Things go better between 9-5 when there’s a social hour afterward.

Is there anything people don’t know about how NBC handled Ann Curry’s removal?
Her removal became public in mid-June, but I tried to look at what was happening way further back. There was even a meeting in 2003 about getting Ann off the Today Show when she was the newsreader, because the executives at the time saw the problem coming. Because if they kept her in this job, viewers were going to expect her to become the co-host. They were going to be rooting for her. So it was acknowledged even in 2003… this was a succession crisis 10 years in the making.

So why didn’t they didn’t fire her sooner?
Because viewers loved her in the job. She was beloved as a newsreader. But just because she was beloved as a newsreader, that doesn’t mean she should be the main anchor. And I think the executives were blinded to that, and I think she was probably blind to that. There was definitely a lack of risk-taking among the bosses at NBC. Television executives are often punished for taking risks and in this case they chose not to.

Are you worried the book might piss off some of your sources?
I think NBC knows they had a really rough year last year. I don’t think they’re going to be surprised by any sentence from the book because they lived it. And they know what happened.

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