Book review Tuesday: Top of the Morning, by Brian Stelter
I’ll admit it: I watch morning TV. A lot of people — especially educated people who fancy themselves to be above it all — won’t admit to ever tuning into such drivel as the Today show or Good Morning America. I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard some variation of “Oh, I think it’s so sad that some people get their news from morning shows,” as if getting your news from Twitter is so much more high-minded. (Don’t pretend, morning TV haters: you’re not tuning into Al Jazeera. You’re getting half of your information from Gawker and then skimming the headlines on Google News. I’m onto you). Anyway, I don’t see any point in denying it: I watch morning TV because I find that the 7 to 8 AM hour of the Today show is just as an effective way to get my basic news as anything else. Plus, once the 8 AM hour starts, maybe I’ll get a few cooking tips or find out what color jeggings I should be buying this season. So it’s all gravy.
I’d say that one of the most interesting aspects of morning TV is the whiff of the private dramas that are undoubtedly simmering just below the surface among the cast-mates. We morning TV viewers watch with almost pervy interest to see if Matt Lauer’s going to snap at Natalie Morales (lovers’ quarrel?), or if Lara Spencer’s going to make another awkward comment about Sam Champion’s taste in interior decor. At least, that’s what I do when I watch. And that’s what I was doing in June 2012, in the weeks and days before Ann Curry was unceremoniously dumped from the Today show and replaced by Savannah Guthrie. I had been following the news of Ann’s imminent sacking for weeks before it happened, and I watched Today every day with rapt interest, trying to see if I could pick up on the tension between Matt Lauer, morning show demi-god, and Curry, who, let’s be honest, kinda sucks at being on TV. For those of you not familiar with Ann Curry’s on-air presence, this (harsh) Gawker article from March 2012 sort of sums it up. And Ann’s last day on the Today show couch? Oy. Being forced to watch it should probably be integrated into the “enhanced interrogation” techniques at Guantanamo.
So, given my prurient interest in morning show drama, I was eager to read Brian Stelter’s Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV, in which Stelter dissects the decisions at NBC leading to Curry’s firing; discusses Good Morning America (GMA)’s rise in 2012-2013, which ultimately resulted in an end to the Today Show’s years-long ratings streak; and looks into the recent up-cropping of other morning shows, including the MSNBC cult favorite Morning Joe. [Fun fact: I also was interested in the book because I met Brian Stelter before — years ago — in a bar. He’s a friend of my dear friend, Claire].
Much of Stelter’s book focuses on the fierce (and decades-long) rivalry between Today and GMA. This rivalry, by the way, in which the Today show sees itself as the “serious” show and GMA sees itself as the “fun” show, is actually kind of ridiculous, at least from an outsider’s perspective, given that these two shows both contain some news content and a hefty amount of fluff. Nonetheless, Stelter writes, “Loyalists to Today liked to describe GMA as smutty, crappy, and, most of all, tabloid.” In contrast, the Today show has traditionally seen itself as erudite and sophisticated — yet, this is the same show that employs the doddering Willard Scott, whose Smuckers-sponsored birthday greetings make me cringe with second-hand embarrassment. But really, both of these shows have a little bit of tabloid and a little bit of news thrown in to the mix. Stelter observes, “No one disputes that the morning shows are supposed to be entertaining as well as informative — look no further than the chimp on the Today show set in the 1950s for proof of that. The philosophical battle is over the mix — the exact proportions of light versus dark, of You Should Know This versus You’ll Enjoy This.” Finding this balance appears to be a constant struggle for both GMA and Today, but especially for Today, which seems to wrestle with delusions of, if not grandeur, sophistication.
Top of the Morning is a snappy, dishy read, full of inside information from people at the networks and plenty of gossip about the relationships between the stars at the center of the Today and GMA lineups. I found Stelter’s discussion of the vast differences in chemistry between the casts of Today and GMA to be particularly interesting. His observation that a network can effectively manufacture success by handpicking a cast with chemistry, energy, and enthusiasm — which is what GMA has accomplished over the last year or so — is fascinating. (Less interesting to me was the in-depth discussion of the ratings war between GMA and Today. My eyes tended to skim over the numbers, in search of more juicy gossip. But then, I’m not really a numbers lady).
I also really enjoyed Stelter’s brutal (but accurate) diagnosis of the problems that plagued Ann Curry as a Today show anchor. For example, Stelter observes, Curry had a tendency to come off as both disingenuous and awkward, and her “on-air comebacks to Lauer during her first months as cohost were just plain weird — the conversational Hacky Sack often fell thudding to the rug, or, figuratively speaking, wound up in the saucepan put out for Al Roker’s cooking segment.” Nailed it. For me, as a Today show viewer, this complete inability to make basic small-talk was one of the most grating things about Curry. I used to cringe — literally, cringe — sometimes watching her flub an interview or make weird comments to her co-hosts.
Despite Curry’s tremendous awkwardness, though, after reading Top of the Morning, I do feel sorry for her. She was roundly mistreated by NBC. Even if one is bad at one’s job, one deserves a humane and dignified dismissal, rather than the dragged-out public humiliation Curry was subjected to. Karmically speaking, it didn’t work out well for Today, either, so I guess what goes around comes around.
Top of the Morning is definitely a book geared toward morning TV viewers. If you don’t watch these shows, it probably won’t be interesting to you, unless you’re interested in the television industry in general. So, those of you who only get your news via carrier pigeon might want to skip it. But for those of us who enjoy a little trash with our morning coffee, there’s a lot of good stuff in this book — recommended.