GOOD MORNING NEWS FOR NBC
NBC’s Today has improved by leaps and bounds since the last time I watched – during the ousting of Matt Lauer more than a year ago. The new directing style the show has adopted dramatically boosts the connection between the talent and the viewers. Hoda, Savannah and Al are alive, in-the-moment, and occasionally engaging, but the show has some work ahead of it – especially with Carson and Craig. But first, an obvious editorial error.
THE TEASE THAT DIDN’T DELIVER
While reading my morning trades last Thursday, I was teased in an on-line article about Today having an exclusive with the kid from Covington Catholic High School. That story is huge here in Cincinnati as Covington is part of our ADI. This was the first time the kid was going to talk, so I TiVo‘d it for later viewing. When I got around to watching it, damn, I felt cheated! In its 8AM hour, the producers devoted just a :15 second bite to this story with the kid saying he didn’t do anything wrong. For such a heavily-touted exclusive, the producers blew it off in their second hour. Mistake. Here’s why.
As a viewer tuning in to Today after a year away, the show got me back – albeit temporarily – by scoring the exclusive with the kid. So their exclusive did what it was supposed to do – increase tune-in (at least by one). But by bungling the way the story was presented, with just a short, throw-away bite, the producers essentially screwed themselves by cheating me (the viewer) out of the story.
Not delivering on a tease is no way to keep viewers.
The worst offender when it comes to under delivering on teases is, of course, Entertainment Tonight. Its teases haven’t paid off in years. I’m amazed anyone still bothers to watch that show!
STYLE VS SUBSTANCE
While the substance on Today needs some work, the style on Today is kicking ass. Most viewers aren’t going to consciously perceive the improvements, but as a personality producer, I recognized the course correction immediately. The show is now shot like a talk show – which is exactly how personality-driven morning shows should be directed. That means the cameras follow the conversation of its hosts, cutting from a closeup on Savannah to a reaction closeup on Koda, to Carson’s comment on a closeup, and so on. This is how you direct compelling television – by showing the viewer what they want to see, when they want to see it – even if they don’t know what it is they want to see. All successful morning shows, from the original KTLA Morning News, the current WGN Morning News and even Today Australia are cut, cut cutting their shows like a talk show. KTLA’s original morning director Lenn Goodside was doing this in 1991. It took Today nearly 30 years to come to the realization that this is how to direct compelling television. We were shooting Good Morning America Sunday like this, at my insistence when I was EP in the late ’90’s – but the weekday Good Morning America remains out of the loop to this day. Robin is shot like an afterthought.
The one thing that annoys me with the new shooting style is that the talent haven’t been clued in on how they must adjust to this new directing pattern. At present, the talent only look at each other when they’re talking. What they are NOT doing is occasionally looking at their close-up camera as if they are talking to me, the viewer, too. They’ve got to alternate their eye contact between their co-hosts AND their closeup camera, so at home, I feel they are talking directly to me too, and that I am part of the conversation. Currently, they only look at their cameras when they’re reading the prompter. It’s an easy fix if someone would just let them know.
AN “OOPS” MOMENT
When you’ve got so many cameras and lots of talent to shoot on a “live” show, you’re going to have a few “oops” now and then. Savannah accidentally leaned into Al’s closeup during his forecast. No big deal. You know why? Because shit happens. Viewers are forgiving. And as I’ve stated numerous times, clean shows are failures because the producer, the director and/or the talent didn’t take any risks. So props Today for taking risks.
Now to other issues that need to be addressed. The standout concern for me is the roles of all the talent. Each anchor’s role – their reason for being on-set – must be clearly defined in the viewer’s eyes. The roles of this group are over the place on the Today set. What is Craig’s role? I assume he was once the “news reader” and is a hold-over from those days. The network shows have always had “news readers” reading the majority of the day’s news stories. But here, Savannah and Hoda are reading the news. And then Craig is too. So there are three people reading news stories? It’s awkward. And its unnecessary. Craig doesn’t really bring anything to the table (figuratively and literally).
He’s not an engaging, energetic, jump-off-the-screen morning personality.
Savannah and Hoda are – but Savannah especially could use a hit of 5 Hour Energy before the show. They’re certainly capable of delivering the news. They’ve acquired the weight necessary to anchor hard news. Let them read the news. I’m sure Craig is a very nice guy, but the show is evolving. Take him off “the kitchen table” and find something else for him to do. I say that with the *caveat below.
Carson, in my opinion as a showrunner, is not all that likable, not very warm and also doesn’t bring much to the table – at least from his performance on this show (he’s comparable to GMA‘s Michael Strahan). He does the entertainment reports, the Pop Start thing. But here’s the problem. He just reads a couple of celebrity and pop culture headlines. Ho hum. There’s not much meat. And there’s zero passion. He’s just reading voice-overs some writer wrote for him overnight. Compare Carson to someone like Sam Rubin, the entertainment reporter I hired for the KTLA Morning News. Sam lives and breathes celebrities. From the moment he walks into the newsroom, he has to share all kinds of things he heard since we last saw him. On-air, he can’t wait to tell you the latest tidbit he’s heard about… fill in the blank. Check out this clip which proves my point.
Sam can’t control himself. He’s passion personified. He “sells it”.
That’s what you want with an on-set entertainment host. Carson just goes through the motions. While I insist the whole family is at “the kitchen table” throughout the show – which Today is now doing – I also insist each family member has a distinct role and brings energy and enthusiasm, quite literally, to the table.
No matter what NBC does or doesn’t do with Carson and Craig, let me say this – do NOT put any more women on that set. In other words, don’t replace any of the guys with a woman. If you have to ask why, you should read this.
Look, I haven’t watched Today in more than a year, I admit it. I didn’t know who Craig was until I Googled him to find out what his name is since none of the on-set talent get their names fonted in the show or spoken in the open. Big Mistake. So my *caveat is that Craig and/or Carson may be beloved people on the show. The viewers may love them. I’m not looking to create an Ann Curry escapade. I don’t have a history with the show to gauge how vital these guys are to its success. If these guys are essential to the show or beloved by viewers, then tell me to shut up and carry on. But if they’re just kinda there like they were in the Thursday show, I’d seriously consider a change.
HODA’S MORNING BOOST
The show is doing a signature segment which highlights Hoda, called Hoda’s Morning Boost. Excellent. I applaud them for doing this. My only comment is this segment needs to be produced. Hoda threw to video of a puppy who got excited about his owner putting an orange on the floor. Not much of a hug-your-puppy story there. It was cute, but not memorable. To make signature segments stand out, you need to find a story that all the talent on-set can get involved with. Here’s an example from my Eye Opener show in Dallas:
Notice how everyone got involved? Viewers will be telling their friends and co-workers this story all day. That’s memorable. And Ty upped the ante later in the show when he did this:
Ty “bookended” the segment by referring back to “the sniffing” later in the show – apparently he and Kevin planned this in advance, but it surprised Neeha – look at her face! Priceless.
Bookends like this reward viewers for “being in on the joke” and thus, their connection deepens to your talent.
Those are the kinds of stories producers should be looking for – and allowing time for in the show because that time investment has a huge payoff.
THE GHOST OF MATT LAUER
One a side note: in the 8AM open, there’s a quick shot of people in the control room, producers and directors and such. Unfortunately, there’s one guy who’s a dead ringer for Matt Lauer in this profile shot. The clip is so quick, I just assumed it was Matt until I stopped, backed it up, and double checked. I don’t think NBC wants the ghost of Matt Lauer still lurking around its morning show – even if it is a lookalike in the newsroom. Just a thought…
I’m excited with this progress. Network morning shows have never learned how to produce their talent, so shooting them on closeups is a giant leap forward. Now the producers need to start cutting down on content and giving that time to their hosts, allowing them to be fun, engaging, vulnerable, honest and opinionated. That’s how you produce a compelling morning show.