Can anyone save the Today show?

The Week

That's the multi-million dollar question facing NBC

In recent months, NBC's Today show — long touted as "America's First Family" — has been exposed, for better or worse, as America's First Dysfunctional Family. And as rumors of teasing, tension, and backstabbing behind the scenes have surfaced, the show has ceded its 18-year run as America's number one morning show.

Matt Lauer is at the center of the drama. Once the darling of morning TV, loved for his ability to glide seamlessly between hard news interviews and lighthearted banter, he's now being painted as a bully. Since Ann Curry's teary on-air departure in June 2012, after only one year of co-hosting, rumors about Lauer's part in her ousting have bubbled up, culminating in headlines like "The real Today show is run by the unpopular bully Matt Lauer."

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The unusually dramatic and public departure of Curry, who replaced Meredith Vieira and was eventually replaced by Savannah Guthrie, has undeniably left a stain on the show. Today had been on a ratings winning streak against top rival Good Morning America since 1995 — a run that ended around the time of Curry's exit. And now, the ratings are still drooping. "On particularly bad days, Good Morning America beat Today by a million viewers," says Brian Stelter in an epic New York Times story on the show. That ratings slump has cost NBC millions upon millions of advertising dollars.

Morning shows are network TV's cash cow. As Stelter puts it, "While the Internet has upended the nightly news, and on-demand services like Netflix continue to disrupt prime time, the morning shows remain one place in the TV industry where the business model still really works, at least for now. Thanks to its five million daily viewers and four hours of irrepressible cheer, Today earns NBC $500 million in annual revenue." That's particularly critical for NBC, which is languishing among its network competitors. 

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As Lauer's reputation crumbles and his contract nears its end (the deal expires next year), some fear his new co-host, Savannah Guthrie, doesn't have the cache to carry the show back to number one, especially as Curry's fans — a passionate bunch — refuse to embrace Guthrie.

So who can save this dysfunctional family? It's a multi-million dollar question, one for which no one seems to know the answer. That said, these five names continue to float around...

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Ryan Seacrest

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(Andy Kropa/Getty Images)

In December, the press reported that Jim Bell, an executive producer on Today at the time, wanted to replace Lauer with Ryan Seacrest, popular host of American Idol and The Red Carpet. New York's Joe Hagan claims that "Lauer learned of the leak while being forced to stand outside the security gate at the White House Christmas party because Ann Curry had forgotten her driver's license." Ouch.

Seacrest has certainly been building his morning show credentials. NBC already tapped him to cover the Olympic Games in London last summer, which seemed to mark a transition away from red carpet coverage for E! and toward more serious coverage for the network. The notoriously hard worker could bring a fresh edge — and plenty of viewers from a decade of hosting American Idol

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Willie Geist

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Geist with Natalie Morales (left) and Martha Stewart (Peter Kramer/NBC)

Today typically picks a new host from within its ranks. "Before being promoted to co-host, Couric was a correspondent on the show; Lauer and Curry were news readers," Stelter points out. "Each of these transitions was carefully orchestrated to appear as an anointment or a retirement." That makes Willie Geist, the likable co-host of MSNBC's Morning Joe and co-anchor of the 9 a.m. hour of the Today show, kind of a no-brainer. Viewers are already used to seeing his face on the show — it's like getting an uncle to take care of the kids instead of a nanny.

Josh Elliot

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(Facebook.com/GoodMorningAmerica)

What about Josh Elliot, host of Today's arch-enemy, Good Morning America? This one may seem like pure speculation, but as Newsday's Verne Gay points out, the rumors make a sort of strategic sense: "Geist is, of course, the sure bet. But sure bets have a way of turning into a pile of sand. Also, networks need other sure bets for tactical and negotiating advantages. If Willie knows he's the only one in the running, then advantage Willie. If there's someone else out there, which is an impression NBC might want to foster, then there's a real negotiation." If that someone else is a rival — or better, the rival — all the better for negotiations.

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Anderson Cooper

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(Facebook.com/Anderson)

Deadline said in an (unconfirmed) report that Today contacted Anderson Cooper about taking Lauer's chair. "Besides demonstrating the ability to guilelessly interview celebrities, Cooper passed the all-important '9/11 test' — shorthand, in network speak, for someone with the gravitas to deliver the most significant news stories. The call [to Cooper's agents] suggested that NBC was finally taking Today succession planning seriously, arguably something it had failed to do for years," says Stelter. And as the "RidicuList" segment on Anderson Cooper 360 shows, he's not one to shy away from joking around either. In that way, he has Lauer's bases covered. 

Megyn Kelly

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(Andy Kropa/Getty Images)

This is the farthest reach — it's Lauer's spot, not Guthrie's, which will likely soon be up for grabs. Still, Stelter says that in 2011, before Curry was a lock, Bell "took some meetings with potentially poachable outsiders like Megyn Kelly, a rising star on the Fox News Channel." It's hard to deny that Kelly would shake things up at Today, which some say is suffering from stale content as well as host-related drama. And a shock to the system may be just what the show needs. 

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