Staff members at NBC's "Today" show huddled for a performance review last month, 10 months after the longtime morning show leader first fell behind ABC's "Good Morning America" in the ratings. The mood was anxious, according to several attendees, as network executives discussed the findings from focus groups with hundreds of viewers.
The employees were reassured that "Today" viewers didn't want their show to turn into "Good Morning America," the ABC rival that has become Americans' No. 1 choice in the mornings. But then they were told this: "What matters most is the anchor connection to the audience; what we need to work on is the connection." As the word "connection" was repeated, some people in the room started to chuckle because of a name that went unspoken: Matt Lauer.
"What they meant was Matt. But no one would say it," said a senior staff member who, like the others, spoke on condition of anonymity.
Mr. Lauer was not there, but it is clear that the once-popular host's relationship with his audience is in peril. Last April, Mr. Lauer signed a contract said to be worth $25 million a year, the most lucrative deal in the 60-year history of morning television. And then the bottom fell out.
The following week, "Today" fell to second place in the morning ratings for the first time in 16 years. When his co-host, Ann Curry, was forced out over the summer, it was Mr. Lauer and not network executives who shouldered most of the blame.
Since then, his popularity among viewers has plummeted and NBC has been forced to deny what was unthinkable a year ago: the rumor that Mr. Lauer, 55, who first took over the co-host chair in 1997, could soon be replaced by a younger host like Willie Geist, 37, or David Gregory, 42.
Mr. Lauer's year is a lesson in how a combination of missteps—NBC's and his own—can precipitate a star's fall. NBC News is still, by some measures, the No. 1 network news division in America, and it will emphasize that point at a presentation for advertisers in New York on Thursday. But the continuing struggles of "Today" threaten to overshadow the network's strength at other times of day.
"Today" pays a lot of the bills for the rest of the news division; it was responsible for roughly half a billion dollars in revenue in 2011. That total dipped by at least $50 million in 2012, according to industry estimates, as "Good Morning America" capitalized on the show's stumbles. NBC declined to comment. But managers at NBC News were told this week that they would receive smaller bonus checks for 2012 because of the "Today" show ratings slump.
A belated image campaign began this week when Mr. Lauer spoke publicly for the first time about what he thought had gone wrong—namely, that his bosses botched Ms. Curry's departure from "Today." Those bosses took pains to suggest that Mr. Lauer wasn't at fault. But the claim, in The Daily Beast, must have come as news to Ms. Curry, who, according to her associates, still feels betrayed by Mr. Lauer and the top producer of "Today," Jim Bell, who left the show last fall.
Mr. Lauer's Q Score—a measure of likability, treated as gospel by the TV industry—has fallen by more than half since he was paired with Ms. Curry in June 2011. It was a 19 that September; by this January it was a 9.
For the first time his counterpart on "Good Morning America," George Stephanopoulos, has a higher score. For Mr. Lauer "the drop started happening in the beginning of 2012, and it's slowly eroded since then," said Henry Schafer of Marketing Evaluations, the company that surveys thousands of viewers to come up with the scores. NBC executives said its focus groups found otherwise.
Ms. Curry has been gone for nine months, yet "Today" is still losing to ABC's "Good Morning America" by about 800,000 total viewers a day. (In the 25-to-54-year-old group, it is losing by fewer than 100,000 viewers.) The ratings are scrutinized now by NBC and ABC for signs that "Today" is stronger on the days when Mr. Lauer is on vacation.
He is criticized routinely in the media; one columnist this week said simply, "He's got to go." And even members of his own staff are sharply divided: some say he, and "Today," can recover from the last year, while others say his reputation is irreparable.
The employees spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution from Mr. Lauer and their bosses. They all agreed that his contract, thought to keep him at "Today" through at least 2014, would be his last.
While "we are aware of all the ridiculous rumors and gossip," said Alex Wallace, the NBC News executive in charge of "Today," "we would like Matt Lauer to be in the chair as long as he would like to be. We hope that's for many years to come." Mr. Lauer has declined interview requests.
Certainly Ms. Curry's removal from "Today" hurt Mr. Lauer, just as he privately predicted it would, and just as his best friend, Bryant Gumbel, was hurt 20 years earlier when Jane Pauley made way for Deborah Norville in a similarly operatic situation.
In both Mr. Lauer's and Mr. Gumbel's case, NBC failed to shield them from criticism. But something more happened on Ms. Curry's last day, June 28: seemingly every negative word ever uttered about Mr. Lauer was reprised. While he stayed silent, tabloid Web sites reran old items about his personal life and blogs said he was undeserving of his contract. All of this is still searchable on Google. The top 10 searches for his name include "divorce," "salary," "Ann Curry," and "fired."
Martin Kaplan of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism said the suggestion that Mr. Lauer forced Ms. Curry out might be unfair, but it looked that way to many viewers. "TV lives by that illusion" of a family, he said. "Sometimes, it also dies by it."
What NBC may do next, according to outsiders contacted by the network, is add another cast member to "Today." Even if the person appeared only on the 9 a.m. hour, which Mr. Lauer is not a part of, such an addition would make "Today" more of an ensemble show, seemingly less dependent on his star power.
Disclosure: NBC is CNBC's parent company.