The initial buzz was that Brian Stelter’s long-anticipated book chronicling the morning-show wars was going to be so harsh on “Today” co-host Matt Lauer that it would cause the remaining stubble on his head to fall out.
Judging from the tepid response since last week’s publication of “Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV,” Lauer can keep his hair — and maybe his job.
“Morning” wants to be a tell-all in the mode of “The Late Shift,” Bill Carter’s richly reported look at how Jay Leno secured “The Tonight Show,” which cracked the shells of some of show business’ most private personalities. Stelter’s attempt to follow suit couldn’t have come at a better time.
The New York Times media reporter started his research in June 2011, the same month Ann Curry started her rocky, and short-lived, stint as co-anchor of NBC’s “Today,” which has long reigned as morning’s top-rated show. Five months later, Charlie Rose and Gayle King would help launch “CBS This Morning” and, within a year, ABC’s “Good Morning America” would return to No. 1 after a gap of 16 years, thanks in no small part to the chemistry between a feisty team led by Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos.
But just having dynamic cast members doesn’t guarantee a dramatic tale.
Stelter, a dogged journalist who has broken significant stories for his paper, fails to humanize any of the key news anchors, resorting to broad, generic characterizations. Curry cries a lot. Rose schmoozes a lot. Roberts perseveres a lot.
Anyone with even a fleeting interest in the morning-show wars already knows this stuff, and Stelter fails to share enough new, colorful anecdotes to freshen these tired stereotypes.
It didn’t help that Lauer and Curry refused to be interviewed, perhaps to their benefit. Lauer’s decision to speak to New York magazine earlier this year blew up in his face as reporter Joe Hagan came up with a cover story much more damaging than this 312-page book.
Stelter doesn’t do himself any favors with a casual approach that’s rife with cliches and groan-inducing metaphors. He seemingly goes out of his way to distance himself from the Times’ stodgy style, but instead of appearing hip, he comes off as what he really is: a 27-year-old journalist trying to cobble together his first book.
“Morning” gets more up-close-and-personal when it focuses on the disastrous, callous decisions made by NBC managers. Stelter does a nice job of exposing how ego, jockeying for power and relying too heavily on pricey lunches can doom a storied franchise like “Today.” Anyone who is a boss, or who is about to become one, may want to pick this book up to help avoid pitfalls.
Those who want dirty details about the on-air stars? Better start searching for that New York cover story.