After 10 years of early mornings, NBC's Savannah Guthrie still lives for 'Today'
When faced with a challenge, “Today” co-anchor Savannah Guthrie will often take a moment to say a prayer.
It can happen in a makeup chair before she takes her seat at NBC's Rockefeller Center studio, during a ride to the airport or just before she heads into an interview with a major newsmaker. Once, she prayed with co-anchor Hoda Kotb before they went on the air to tell viewers that their longtime colleague Matt Lauer had been fired.
Based on the turbulent decade she’s spent on NBC's morning franchise, even a non-believer would understand why Guthrie, 49, seeks support from a higher power.
Over her 10 years at "Today," Guthrie has mastered the balancing act of delivering serious breaking stories and smiling through the softer entertainment segments that are part of morning TV, the profit engine of network news divisions.
But the attorney-turned-journalist also had to navigate several crises at the network and will have to lead the program into a future where a generation of viewers doesn't have the same morning TV habit as their parents.
In a recent Zoom call from her dressing room, Guthrie said she was grateful for having made it this far after being thrust into the spotlight to replace Ann Curry in 2012, a year after joining the program as a cohost for its 9 a.m. hour. Curry's unceremonious departure angered some “Today” fans who believed she was treated poorly by Lauer.
“I didn't think I'd last six months or a year, let alone 10 years,” Guthrie said. “I really didn't. I thought I'm some transitional person and I'm going to be the first casualty.”
Steve Capus, the former NBC News president who chose Guthrie for the job, said he was confident that would not be the case.
“By 2012, Savannah had thrived in high-pressure, difficult circumstances,” Capus said. “The ‘Today’ show needed a steady presence to put the turmoil of that time behind us.”
Five years later, Guthrie had to walk through the fire again. In November 2017, she told viewers that Lauer — the longest-tenured host in the show's long history — was banished over sexual harassment allegations. Alongside new co-anchor Hoda Kotb, she held the fractured TV family together.
“It was really heartbreaking because I adored Matt,” Guthrie said. “I loved working with him. But I knew the most important thing I could do was just stay focused and keep going. And having Hoda here — well, I think Hoda saved the show, full stop.”
Kotb became a star on "Today" as Kathie Lee Gifford's partner on the program's more freewheeling fourth hour. She was happy to learn that the often serious Guthrie, a magna cum laude Georgetown Law graduate known for reading legal journals for fun, had a sharp sense of humor.
"It can be quite terrifying when she says something out of the side of her mouth right before we go on," Kotb said.
Instead of seeing ratings collapse after Lauer's departure, the program's first all-female hosting team held the audience. The historic pairing also helped mitigate a rash of stories about sexual harassment allegations within the network's news division.
Guthrie was sent into another minefield last fall during the 2020 presidential campaign when the network asked her to moderate an NBC News town hall with Donald Trump. The network was seen as caving to the former president, who refused to participate in the second scheduled debate against Joe Biden that would be held virtually.
It appeared to be a thankless task, as NBC brass was blasted by political pundits and social media for putting the telecast up directly against ABC's previously announced event with Democratic nominee Biden. Some of the network's stars signed a letter protesting the move.
But Guthrie, a former White House correspondent, delivered a skillful grilling of Trump that made viewers and most critics forget about the mess her bosses created. Her suggestion to Trump that he was tweeting “like someone’s crazy uncle” is destined to be a part of campaign highlight reels in the years to come.
Libby Leist, the NBC News senior vice president who oversees "Today," said the interview was a success because of Guthrie's tireless work ethic, which she has seen in action since they started working together in 2008 at the network's Washington bureau.
"She approaches every assignment she gets the same way," Leist said. "She’s going to think through every interview top to bottom and think through every question three or four different ways."
Perseverance has served Guthrie well in the last decade. Viewers will see more of her in the coming months as she will be a guest host of "Jeopardy!" for two weeks starting June 14. She also will handle NBC's coverage of the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo on July 23 if they are not canceled due to COVID-19.
But keeping "Today" competitive won't get any easier in the years ahead.
Morning shows had long been the most durable broadcast TV formats, holding up relatively well against competition from cable and time-shifting DVRs. The emergence of online streaming is pulling viewers away from traditional TV, which is cutting into the morning-show audience.
"Today" finished the 2020-21 season with an average of 3.3 million viewers, down 14% from the previous year, according to Nielsen data. It trailed ABC's first-place "Good Morning America" (3.9 million viewers, which was down 13%) and led "CBS This Morning" (2.8 million, down 8%). But "Today" has held onto its lead among viewers ages 25 to 54, the demographic advertisers want when they buy commercial time on news shows.
"I think what the network thinks about more than anything is 'where are the viewers going and how can we catch them?'" Guthrie said.
The response so far is to offer Guthrie and the rest of the "Today" team — Kotb, Craig Melvin, Al Roker, Dylan Dreyer, Jenna Bush Hager, Sheinelle Jones and Carson Daly —across new digital platforms. NBC launched Today All Day, a streaming channel that delivers "Today" segments on YouTube, Roku, Peacock and other services. The program also has its own audio channel on SiriusXM.
"Our goal is to meet the viewer where they are wanting the content," Leist said. "That will require more of our anchors' time."
Starting this week, Guthrie and Kotb will anchor a half-hour highlight program called "Today In 30," which will feature the best moments from that day's broadcast. The summary will be shown three times each day on Today All Day and the program's other streaming platforms.
Guthrie understands the added duties are needed to expand the show's reach, especially among younger viewers ("It's all quite manageable," she said). But she believes job one is to serve the audience that watches the program live each morning to find out what happened overnight and learn the agenda for the day ahead.
"I can't get up every day having an existential crisis about broadcast news," Guthrie said. "We still have a show to put on. We still put on, I believe, an excellent show."
After doing "Today" for several months from her homes in Manhattan and upstate New York and the socially distanced "Today" studio, Guthrie has started hitting the road again.
Last month, she conducted three newsmaking interviews in three cities over 36 hours: Brian Houston, founder of the scandal-plagued Hillsong Church; Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, after she was ousted from her Republican leadership role in Congress; and Ellen DeGeneres, following her decision to end her daytime talk show amid allegations that she ignored a toxic work environment.
Guthrie, who has spoken more openly about her Christian faith in recent years, said the whirlwind day and a half is where prayer can come in handy.
"The number-one thing I always pray for is to make sure that I come to an interview with sincerity and good faith, having done my homework," she said. "I think that's the best I can give to that person who agreed to be interviewed and may be in a difficult time."
When difficult times hit "Today," Guthrie has her own in-house crisis communications expert: her husband Michael Feldman, managing director of the Glover Park Group and a former senior advisor to former Vice President Al Gore. (They have two children, Vale, 6 and Charley, 4.)
"I am a client, but I don't have to pay," Guthrie said. "He's an amazing partner. I couldn't have gotten through any of this without him. When I came to the 'Today' show, I turned that Google alert off. But Mike has it on because he's always watching, making sure in case there's anything we've got to worry about."
While hard-news interviews are Guthrie's strong suit, she never watches them afterward, even the Trump town hall. But she will occasionally review her Halloween performance on the program in which she re-created a scene from the musical movie “Grease.”
“That was probably one of my favorite moments on the show,” Guthrie said. "Because there's no young lady coming of age in the late '70s and early '80s that didn't want to be Sandy from 'Grease' in those black pants, doing that dance.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.