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Why Ann Curry didn't work out on 'Today'

In this image released by NBC, co-host Ann

In this image released by NBC, co-host Ann Curry, left, talks with actress Charlize Theron about her movie “Young Adult” on the “Today” show in Manhattan. (Dec. 9, 2011) (Credit: AP)

It's probably a bit premature to put a period on the Ann Curry tenure, but since NBC has -- finally -- confirmed through The New York Times what the rest of the industry has known for some time, why not?

In one sense, yesterday's Times' scoop was part of the plan -- let the world know that Ann is on the outs so the world can prepare for the departure. Transitions on morning shows, particularly this one, must be handled “delllllicately,“ to paraphrase the Wicked Witch of the East. Too abrupt equals too many news stories in too many papers which then has the nasty effect of fracturing the faux-family feel that “Today” and “GMA” work so assiduously at conveying. 

Back to Ann: What happened? The answer is obvious. With Curry, you can always -- and I do mean always -- see the gears moving inside her head; you can see the thought process as it proceeds, as she struggles with one question, and then the next follow; she leans in, with abject earnestness, to help disguise to guest and viewer that she's not straining, but alas, you see it anyway. 

With viewers and guests alike -- the recent Chris Rock debrief as an example -- there is this feeling of a disconnect. You're not quite sure where this is heading. What WILL she ask next and will it be the right follow? Then, grind grind grind, you can see the gears shifting again, as she glances at the paper, looks up, and asks. 

Never let them see you sweat. We always see Ann sweat. 

Here's an anecdote that may or may not be apropos of this situation. Many years ago I was on the “Today” set for some reason -- I forget why, some long forgotten story. Katie Couric and Matt Lauer had just ended some segment, and then -- following the usual quip, laughter, banter -- the show dumped to a commercial. 

And dead silence. Matt's head bowed, and Katie's head bowed -- it was if no one else in the entire world existed, least of all the person they were just joking with three feet away. Why heads bowed? I looked closer: They were studying. And not just casual studying, but studying with a ferocity that I had never seen before. Matt was staring at a sheaf of papers, and I swear I could see his lips move as the words passed before his eyes. Same with Katie -- an intensity that was very nearly white hot. And not a word -- a single word was spoken.

Then, boom, the director yelled, "5, 4, 3, two...ONE...and we're live!“ And in that instance, both heads arose, and the laughter continued as if nothing had changed over the last minute and 30 seconds.

Matt and Katie, you see, had been studying for the next segment; they had been memorizing facts, working over the questions they were going to ask, memorizing something they had read, and  most of all anticipating EXACTLY what answer the guest was going to have so they could then have an INSTANT response. In other words, over that short commercial break, they had effectively constructed an entire forthcoming interview in their heads. Nothing was left to chance.

Where am I heading with this and why is it relevant to Ann Curry? Simply this: These jobs look effortless but they are not. There is a great deal of intensive work that goes into each interview, and this work is condensed into very small chunks. Moreover, the successful anchors -- Bryant Gumbel above all -- have a near photographic memory (in fact Gumbel has a photographic memory) so that they have instant recall. When a guest says something to them, they are already five steps ahead. Advantage is ALWAYS with the anchor.

With Ann, advantage was ALWAYS with the guest. She was always trying to catch up with THEM, not the other way around. She didn't take command. They took command.

Does any of this mean Ann didn't work just as hard as Matt? Of course not. She's a hard worker. But for whatever reasons, she could never take the material and use it to her benefit -- or to use it to control a situation, any situation.

There's another point to be raised here as well: When an excellent morning anchor, like Robin Roberts or Katie or Matt, have taken control -- and they always or most always do (in fact, I've never seen Katie Couric bobble one interview EVER) then that gives them confidence. 

You -- the viewer -- can feel that confidence bleed out of the screen. It makes you, the viewer, feel a little better about everything, too: The taste of your coffee, the way your morning is going, whether you're going to make it to the train on time, and so forth.

Confidence is contagious. Lack of confidence is contagious, too.

Finally this: Good anchors are good actors. This doesn't mean they're phony, but good actors -- who can ad-lib, fake a good laugh, grab a good quip out of thin air.

Matt is a very good actor and master of this trade; that's why they pay him about $27 million a year.

Ann, alas, is not a good actor. She's a nice, decent, hardworking woman, with a good intelligence, and a genuine ability to be out in the field and work a tough story that needs a human face -- especially her face. She's got guts, and cares about people, and viewers of “Today” know that.

They also know she was miscast in this job. But most of them -- most of us -- were just too nice to say so.  

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