Friday, February 14, 2014

Top of the Morning

Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TVTop of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV by Brian Stelter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Chronicling a tumultuous year in the history of morning television, a journalist goes behind the scenes to tell the real story behind Ann Curry's firing and the ratings wars.

In morning television, there is the juggernaut, Today, and then there is everyone else. For eight hundred and fifty straight weeks, Today was number one, raking in the advertising revenue. And then comes Ann Curry. Part one of Top of the Morning is the story of the Curry debacle at Today, part two recounts the woes and triumphs of Good Morning America, Today's chief rival, which took advantage of the crisis to aim for the coveted number one spot.

Stelter is not flattering to Curry, often calling her "strange" and "awkward" and painting Matt Lauer as her reasonable but bemused coanchor. Their chemistry was off from day one, and it was Curry who took the blame rather than the seasoned (male) anchor or any other aspect of the show (though he's received new heat after the debacle of her firing). Following on the heels of Lauer's warm relationship with Meredith Vieria, the contrast was obvious, and painfully awkward to witness. Once Lauer renewed his already lucrative contract for even more than his usual $20 million dollar-a-year paycheck, Curry's fate was sealed. And she didn't go quietly.

I don't quite buy Stelter's read on the situation, which casts Curry as the petulant bumbler and Lauer as the seasoned pro (Stetler was unable to interview Lauer for the book, and had other restrictions placed on what he wrote in exchange for behind-the-scenes access). Stetler does, to his credit, mention how often a female co-anchor bears the blame for failing ratings, only to be replaced by a newer model (Joan Lunden to Lisa McRee in 1997). Morning shows are created mostly by men for a mostly female audience, and that leads to conflicts.

Let's compare the coanchors Lauer had chemistry with to the one he didn't take to. You may draw your own conclusions:

Top of the Morning reads like a juicy gossip column. Packed with colorful writing (albeit, with sometimes overheated metaphors), Stelter maintains the breathless tone of someone keenly interested in the 'who hates who' backstories, even mentioning his own presence at a few of the important gatherings. He tracks the meanness and squabbles, the pettiness of men and women in charge of programs worth millions of dollars. They take their morning TV very seriously.

If you are even vaguely familiar with television, you'll recognize many of the names Stelter bandies about. I enjoyed hearing the gossip, though I confess to having to look up about half of the current and former morning show anchors mentioned. (The often-mentioned conflict between serious journalists and sensationalist fluff is one that makes me chuckle - to me, most broadcast news seems like highly compressed fluff anyway.) You won't learn a lot about the way morning shows function, or have to sit through the mysteries of Nielson ratings, but you will understand the backstory behind this infamous video:

Want more behind-the-scenes? Try The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, & the Network Battle for the Night by Bill Carter, or Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller.


"In the TV world, as you may know, 'to do something' often means 'to fire someone.'" - 4

"A genuine meanness seemed to color the staff's attitude toward their troubled colleague [Ann Curry], something that looked from certain angleslike the giddiness brought on by a sense of doom. One staff member, offended by the behavior, said 'a lot of time in the control room was spent making fun of Ann's outfit choices or just generally messing with her.' On one memorable morning, Curry wore a bright-yellow dress that spawned snarky comparisons to Big Bird." - 80

"When TV critics and anonymous sources blamed a lack of 'chemistry' for Curry's bad year with Lauer, she heard a euphemism for something else. Several friends recalled her saying, 'Chemistry, in television history, generally means the man does not want to work with the woman.' They said she added, 'It's an excuse generally used by men in positions of power to say 'The woman doesn't work.' Historical examples abound: Connie Chung and Dan Rather; Barbara Walters and Harry Reasoner. Chemistry, Curry argued, is when both people want to play catch - when somebody isn't interested in playing catch, that's when there isn't chemistry. She, at least in her own mind, came to work every day with her glove on and her throwing arm all warmed up." - 249

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