On-Air Power of Curry & Pauley
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Advanced TV Herstory – our name says it all. Analyzing and celebrating the women in and of TV, whether they are behind the scenes, popular performers or women from other fields who find themselves the subjects of major American Moments of TV. Let’s think for a moment about the women who bring us the news. We see them every morning. Or at least you do if you watch network TV from 7 to 9 am.
Women journalists have been around for almost as long as TV has aired the news. Representation has always been sparse, though the late 70s – post Watergate as a matter of fact, was perhaps the period where we had more women journalists emerging in their careers than any other.
Let’s think a minute about the ages and lengthy careers of some of the most respected names – and I know – this is just a tiny portion of a list that could be much longer – of women in TV journalism:
Barbara Walters is 81
Diane Sawyer is 71
Last year we lost Marlene Sanders, a true pioneer, at the age of 84.
Jumping in a bit to the generation that cut its teeth on Watergate, Andrea Mitchell is 70 as is Judy Woodruff. Woodruff lost her partner on PBS last year – Gwen Ifill was just 61. Jane Pauley, who we are going to talk about in this installment, is 66. Ann Curry is 60 and finally, to fill out your understanding of the fact that we are talking about educated women who are well paid and have millions of fans… Kelly Ripa – true not a journalist – is 46 and has 1.2 million followers on Twitter.
This installment of Advanced TV Herstory takes a long look at the events that led up to Ann Curry being forced from her role as co-host of The Today Show in 2012, and more importantly, how she said her farewell. Within that context, we’re going to rewind the tape 23 years to when Jane Pauley was forced from her role as co-host of The Today Show in 1989. Yes, I guarantee you’ll learn something from this comparison.
Finally, we’ll cap it off with a lesson from Kelly Ripa about voice, managing the message and taking risk.
This installment isn’t so much about what we watched as what we, as women who work in cultures healthy and toxic, in most cases for less pay than the men with similar responsibilities and often get labeled “difficult to work with…” or “too old to carry the load,” have learned from Ann, Jane and Kelly.
Initially, I thought this segment would just be about Ann Curry’s departure. If you’re not a morning TV person or were super busy in 2012, you may have missed this raw moment of TV – Ann Curry, co-host of The Today Show for less than a year- but following a dozen years as the show’s news anchor – announcing her own departure from Today.
In the weeks preceding Curry’s last day, there had been all sort of media buzz about her future on The Today Show, much of it via the reporting of Brian Stelter of The New York Times. As soon as the segment aired, it became news. Or rather Curry became news. Gayle King, who has experience behind the camera as well as in front of it, was on Sirius XM Radio that morning in June 2012, with Andy Cohen and had this to say when she heard it – right there, as part of the show. Gayle held it together, sort of barely.
Something happened here. Ann Curry had done something differently than others and the whole world watched. Occasional viewers might have just thought it was an inappropriate display of emotion. Regular viewers weren’t happy. They pummeled Matt Lauer on Twitter and social media for months following this segment. What they had seen demonstrated that Matt Lauer was somehow complicit in Ann Curry’s departure.
What’s more, the video of The Today Show was so intriguing, New York’s local news station WPIX replayed the tape with a body language expert providing commentary.
There should be a weekly news show devoted to representation of women on TV and it would replay clips and headlines of what went on with women that week. No doubt, this body language expert, Tonya Reiman, with a hard-working agent, would be frequent guest. Okay, I digress, but want to put that out there because I found this WPIX recap intriguing.
Ann Curry’s departure is the main lesson of this podcast. She packed a lot into her statement and left those surrounding her on the couch pretty much speechless. Curry spoke from the heart. She spoke to her audience and left it for them to interpret.
NBC had been working up to that moment for nearly a year and she was not about to spin the situation on their behalf, as others have done in the past, including Jane Pauley back in 1989. Ann Curry’s backstory needs to be understood.
In 2013, after years on the media beat for The New York Times, reporter Brian Stelter published the most comprehensive analysis of the recent history of the morning news shows. I heartily recommend his book, Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV to listeners of this show for a few reasons.
First, he presented great detail to support his timelines. According to interviews found on YouTube around the time the book was launched, Stelter explained that he enjoyed nearly unfettered access to talent, crew and staff at all the major morning shows, right up until the time of the Ann Curry departure. It’s just really well written, as you’d expect from a reporter from one of America’s most trusted newspapers. Stelter has since become a reporter on CNN.
Second, he assembled the timeline of the last few years, but provided a valuable review of important history of the storied tradition of The Today Show, the development of Good Morning America and how morning TV became an economic engine for the networks.
Third, for the most part, Stelter as reporter refrains from asserting too much opinion. He saved that for the interviews he gave when he was out promoting the book. However, you feel his youth and appreciation for innovation when he described in great length ABC’s makeover of Good Morning America. It’s a valuable case study of comparative cultures, change management and assembling talent that can complement each other and not seem competitive.
If you have any interest in Ann Curry’s or Good Morning America Icon Robin Roberts’ career, or more importantly your own, I recommend Stelter’s book. Intrigue and office politics and the old saws used to keep women from advancing, all courtesy of the morning shows you or your mother or grandmother may watch.
Of Stelter’s many interviews you can find on YouTube, the one I found most candid was one he did with Joy Behar in April 2013. When we think about how often we are told to give a man a chance to succeed or how often we are told that credentials aren’t everything or that an ambitious woman isn’t loyal… listen to Stelter and Joy Behar describe Curry’s first year in this new role. Remember Curry had been with NBC’s Today Show already for 13 years.
It’s understood that TV news people have multi-year contracts and NBC’s Today Show team was no exception. In order to ensure that they could end Curry’s contract with The Today Show’s balance intact, network executive men orchestrated something called Operation Bambi, which Behar found appalling.
On her show 2013 show called Current TV, Joy Behar can say almost anything she wants. She can be unpredictable, but it’s clear from this interview that she wanted to make sure her viewers knew that Ann Curry hadn’t been treated well. There was a lot this interview could have focused on, but she made sure Stelter’s reporting of a toxic tilted workplace at NBC News was brought to light.
More often than not I like Joy Behar and she didn’t disappoint me in this interview. As much as Brian Stelter would have been happy to talk about the business side of morning news and the competitiveness, Behar wanted to talk about culture. She’s likely no stranger to the games.
Now in his book Stelter told the story of how ABC achieved the new format of Good Morning America and drove it to success with discipline and solid team building. The people making decisions understood that vital on-air chemistry is influenced by the audience’s attention span and how it receives its news. For anyone looking for a real-world example of process improvement, this book built that important aspect of the business into the story. Stelter had to. It was essential.
Reading it with the benefit of hindsight to Curry’s situation, however made me wonder whether Ann Curry, who didn’t conform to The Today Show’s tradition – she was too this, she was too that - was in fact a break-through outlier that the new Today should have been built on. She had a significant following. She was middle-aged. She wasn’t blonde! But that would have required NBC to recognize that the improvement that would be necessary to stay in first place was something other than simply replacing the female talent on the co-host couch. It had worked for them in the past, it was their go-to tactic.
The folks who worried about The Today Show losing traction at first place were men whose livelihoods depended on a rebound. We’ve come to know that a homogenous group of white men is slow if not incapable of asking the question – what will attract more viewers? Their answer to that was a double-down on Matt Lauer, their golden boy with a golden salary who their research showed enjoyed a high favorability with viewers. I am curious to know how those favorability questions were asked.
So in the end, Ann Curry was “assigned” a crew and a budget to go be the next Christiane Amanpour. That hasn’t exactly panned out. The Today Show goes on as does Good Morning America, the hosts of which always seems to look like they’re having a good deal of fun. Robin Roberts, who has shared numerous personal challenges with viewers over the years has immense credibility. We don’t celebrate her enough.
Ann Curry. She invoked her own goal to advance the cause of women in journalism and TV into her remarks and apologized for not getting further. That’s huge.
Stelter’s book reminds us that this wasn’t the first time The Today Show had closed out a contract with a fan favorite – Jane Pauley. In 1989, at the age of 39, Pauley was edged off her spot on the couch next to Bryant Gumbel in favor of younger, blonder Deborah Norville.
Thirty nine! Let’s listen to a man going out of his way to say a LOT in order for he, or Jane or the viewer to somehow get distracted from the fact that something pretty nasty is going down…
I know, it’s hard to control your gag reflex. But keep this in mind the next time you’re being – transitioned – you do not want to hand the microphone – the power – the messaging – to the man. In 1989, Jane Pauley maybe didn’t have a choice. She’s only 5 years older than Curry, but came to the couch from a different path. In this audio clip from that same Today Show segment, Pauley cites family priorities but doesn’t mention her health. In her 2004 memoir Skywriting, Pauley revealed her diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder and the toll it had taken on her marriage and family life.
So while you’re listening to this clip of Pauley (she had not yet been diagnosed), remember this wasn’t her choice to leave and Deborah Norville (who was replaced only one year later with Katie Couric) was still a younger, blonder, fresher face. There’s no getting around that.
Who doesn’t love Jane Pauley? She’s currently on CBS Sunday Morning Show, which is wonderful news – so much more palatable than watching the talking heads on the political shows. But America would be well served to have a woman of her caliber be much more visible.
So from Jane Pauley to Ann Curry… you have to wonder if Ann Curry, when the handwriting started showing up on the wall that her time was short, watched the 1989 Today Show segment and vowed that her last show would be different. Maybe she spent time with Jane – in Jane’s sunroom – sketching out the tactics, the words and what the moment would feel like. We will likely never know. Television news remains that competitive.
At the top of this segment, I shared a list of icons of American journalism – women living and dead – all 60 and older. And I added Kelly Ripa, who is 46 to the list. She doesn’t even come close to being a journalist, but did play the role of Hayley on All My Children for a dozen years. Ripa is a talk show personality. Here’s why Kelly Ripa gets a few minutes on this podcast.
First, she’s Gen X, she’s outspoken and she’s now been around a while. Her show delivers ratings because she’s found her voice. Parenting, humble roots and a healthy ego, she’s not Kathie Lee and Hoda Kotb. She paid her dues sitting next to Regis Philbin and grew up. Out of loyalty and hard work, she earned the top seat and lead billing on the show. So when her co-host, former football player Michael Strahan, signed a contract to join another ABC show Good Morning America, you can understand why she felt her values and place had been tread upon.
I don’t watch daytime TV and haven’t been sick or home with sick kids in a long time. Ripa strikes me as having a healthy ego, which is a necessity in her business. She spends money on herself and is probably quite demanding of consistency and quality of the show. She’s suffered her own fair share of headlines that reveal her to be “difficult to work with.” Alas, the double standard of chemistry, difficulty, ego, demands….
When the Strahan departure was announced, Ripa took it… well… here’s how Inside Edition aired the item…
When Ripa sequestered herself for that short time, she was thinking through her strategy, her messaging. While she could have focused on her power and her place in the show, she chose instead to talk about values like trust, communication and respect. With a modest amount of humor, she pushed back to producers any notion that she would become emotional. Remember people, in 2016 she was a 45 year old woman and the show’s lead. At what age or stage will the network take Ripa seriously?
And I’m sure you noticed how within the Inside Edition piece, whoever wrote the piece reminded viewers that there’s alleged tension between Ripa and Strahan. Hmm, 2 outsize egos in the prime of their careers – both having landed the gig out of sheer luck. If there was no tension, it would probably be a boring show.
But as I see it, Kelly Ripa claimed the space to announce Strahan’s transition to the audience, even though it had already become public. Strahan’s move to Good Morning America was tantamount to getting called up to the big leagues. Yes good for him. Her issue, deservedly so, was that having led the show for five years and serving sidekick to Regis Philbin for a decade prior, that the network engineered major changes to her show without her input, without her consideration.
I can’t come up with a male talk or news figure of that tenure and popularity who would have reacted any differently. This is her life, her livelihood, her reputation. All in all she could have been much more direct in calling out the network’s leaving her out of the loop. With any luck, they’ll pay a price when her contract comes up for renewal.
These three instances – call them two apples and an orange as they are not all the same – take into account how power is positioned when an unfair decision gets spun or unspun for public consumption. Power factors into almost every detail of the videos – each one of these is available on YouTube.
Jane Pauley, in a sense just a player in a highly scripted series of messages, wore a passive brown suit jacket. Just another day at the office, though for the record, the announcement was made in October and her actual last day was in December. She may have worn other colors when she was off camera, but her demeanor on camera in October was practically anesthetized.
Ann Curry wore bright red. Energy, power, she made her space on the couch all about her.
And when Kelly re-appeared on her show, she too wore bright red. Sleeveless to show off her sculpted biceps. Inside Edition noted Strahan was off-camera for Kelly’s remarks – I am guessing that was no accident. She needed to stand and own her monologue.
Well there you have it. This is the wisdom of womanhood that either you’re fortunate to get through friendships and networks, or you don’t. Please recommend this installment to any friend who is looking for some dry land, some perspective – while she is going through a difficult time at work or in life.
If morning news show TV is your thing, then I endorse Brian Stelter’s 2013 book Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV. The headline says it all and it’s not playing around. Audio clips from Ann Curry and Jane Pauley’s appearances on The Today Show are all found on YouTube, as is the Gayle King appearance on Andy Cohen’s Sirius XM radio talk show, WPIX’s breakdown of Curry’s last day and the Inside Edition piece on Kelly Ripa.
It’s all out there, but sometimes small lessons need to get stitched together to make something larger. For that, I am grateful to all three women for their diligence, professionalism and self-confidence. May they enjoy good health and great opportunities that keep them in our TV worlds for a long time to come.
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Thanks for listening to this installment of Advanced TV Herstory. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams