Hoda Kotb, the NBC News veteran who’s played around the edges of prominence at the news division over a 20-year run there, stepped solidly into one of the most prominent roles Tuesday morning: NBC named her co-anchor of “Today,” replacing Matt Lauer who was fired in November in the wake of sexual harassment charges.
“We’ve got some really exciting news to share about us,” began co-host Savannah Guthrie. Indeed — but maybe not the most surprising. Kotb, a popular choice inside the network to replace Lauer and, judging by recent ratings, a popular choice among viewers, too, she emerged as the slam-dunk favorite in recent weeks to take on this role.
“This has to be the most popular decision NBC News has ever made and I’m so thrilled,” Guthrie continued, while Kotb, 53, could initially muster only this: “I’m pinching myself.”
In a statement, NBC News chairman Andy Lack said, “Over the past several weeks, Hoda has seamlessly stepped into the co-anchor role alongside Savannah, and the two have quickly hit the ground running. They have an undeniable connection with each other and most importantly, with viewers, a hallmark of ‘Today.’ ”
Kotb will continue to co-anchor the 10 a.m. “Today” extension alongside Kathie Lee Gifford.
Besides the rarity of this sort of announcement — Lauer, after all, held the job 20 years and Katie Couric for 15 — what’s unprecedented about this particular move is obvious. For the first time in the 66-year history of the “Today” franchise, two women will head TV’s most prominent morning program.
In fact, that has hardly ever been done on any morning show for reasons that were never exactly clear other than the vague sense a male-female co-host team was the way things were supposed to be. (In fact, Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts co-hosted “Good Morning America” in the mid ’00s, although that was largely considered a temporary situation while Sawyer awaited her turn as anchor of “World News Tonight.”)
But for 2018, “what’s supposed to be” has dramatically changed. Kotb replaces a veteran host who was pushed out of the job after sexual harassment charges dating back years. NBC News executives — including Lack — have long maintained that they knew nothing of Lauer’s behavior. Nevertheless, a sense has remained among some at the network that NBC — and “Today” — should have been more vigilant. Kotb’s ascension not only brooms away precedence, but also any sense that the network was content to fall back on tradition — which wouldn’t have been the best signal to send at the outset of a new year, and new era.
A veteran news woman, she’s appeared on NBC’s air for 20 years, initially as a “Dateline” correspondent. She’s had personal challenges and has not been shy about exploring those in public forums, notably the 2010 bestseller, “Hoda: How I Survived War Zones, Bad Hair, Cancer, and Kathie Lee.”
“Survive” may have been a strong word in the context of bad hair and Gifford. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 after failing to undergo routine screening, she said, and spent the subsequent months and years on the road to recovery urging viewers to avoid her mistakes. Kotb is certainly a professional survivor. When Gifford joined her as co-host in 2008, no one gave the pairing much hope of long-term viability. Gifford’s glory days with Regis Philbin were long behind her, while the idea of a soft-talk show seemed like the biggest of stretches.
The outcome, of course, was otherwise. The 10 a.m. show was a moderate hit, and NBC has been searching for ways to expand Kotb’s morning duties ever since.
Last year, she was quietly moved over to “Today” as the third co-anchor. The reasons for her presence were never exactly explained, but they didn’t have to be. Kotb was clearly in line to assume a more prominent role there, possibly as Lauer’s replacement when he finally chose to leave.
When that decision was made for him, the timetable was moved up.
While Kotb’s new role is historic, there’s nothing particularly jarring about it — certainly not to longtime viewers. Since Lauer’s forced exit, she’s stepped effortlessly into a job she already knows intimately. She and Guthrie do in fact have on-air chemistry. Meanwhile, that long-standing idea of the “Today” cast as the embodiment of one big happy family has just undergone a brand-new — and distinctly 21st century — makeover.