NBC’s ‘Today’ Is in Hoda Kotb’s Debt. It Should Pay Her Back, Handsomely

The Daily Beast

January 2, 2018

At 7 a.m. on Tuesday morning Savannah Guthrie rightly opined to viewers that appointing Hoda Kotb as co-host, alongside her, of NBC’s had to have been the “most popular decision” that NBC News ever made.

There was a hashtag ready to go, #SavannahHodaTODAY, and the hosts proudly watched it rise to the top of the morning’s trending Twitter topics, way above the cold weather.

Three hours later, at 10 a.m., Kathie Lee Gifford, Kotb’s long-time cost of the fourth hour of Today, said the occasion marked a “very special Booze Day Tuesday.”

And so it is that the brilliant and warmth-radiating Kotb will wear two hats every morning: the news anchor shepherding Today show fans through the biggest headlines of the day—though these are quickly subsumed on regular news days by segments about food, fashion, and parenting—and then, after an hour’s rest provided by the more controversy-inclined Megyn Kelly, back to her 10 a.m. perch with Kathie Lee Gifford, made famous by the duo’s filled wine glasses which are now more for show than gulping from.

There are very few TV hosts who can convincingly segue from national tragedy to whooping over makeovers, but Kotb is one of those hosts. It was not only the most popular decision NBC News could have made, it was surely also one of the easiest. There is no one on the Today show better qualified or more liked and trusted by viewers than Kotb.

Amid all the plaudits and applause through the morning on Tuesday, one name went unmentioned, the reason for the Kotb’s promotion: Matt Lauer, who was fired by NBC after allegations of sexual misconduct.

The symbolism of the all-female anchor team, a first for Today, is intentional, an attempt by NBC to showcase its feminist and #MeToo credentials even as its investigation into Lauer continues.

Guthrie called Kotb her “sister.”

Together they will tell viewers, whenever the time comes, of what NBC has discovered and deduced about Lauer’s sexual misdemeanors.

But what of Kotb or Guthrie’s salaries? Will they be the same or anywhere near Lauer’s reported $20 million a year?

Lauer himself had texted Kotb to offer his congratulations, she told E! News.

If the transition on Tuesday morning appeared so seamless as to be almost ripple-free, it’s because Kotb had stepped into the co-anchor’s show the morning the Lauer scandal broke.

It’s because she has been a much-liked part of the show for a long time.

It was Kotb who sat opposite Guthrie that day, as the latter, visibly shell-shocked, spoke of what had happened. Kotb was more measured: heartfelt for sure in the effects she relayed of what people were feeling that morning, but not losing it.

She has been in the co-host’s chair ever since, and so her elevation to the role officially seemed the most benignly well-signposted of TV inevitabilities. What other choice could NBC have made, even if they weren’t desperately coating themselves in an emphatic layer of feminist righteousness? Kotb would be the most obvious, and best, in-house pick for the job, scandal or no scandal. At this moment, the most adept pair of hands for the job also serves a valuable symbolic purpose for NBC.

The men of Today are now very much second-string: Al Roker serves up weather, Carson Daly is relegated to the “orange room,” and to serve up pop culture news.

Still, Kotb said she had to pinch herself on getting the news (Did she? What were the negotiations really like?), and added that medics should go to her mother’s Alexandria, VA. home in case she had fainted on hearing the news announced live on the show.

The congratulations kept coming, from co-hosts and guests. And then came Megyn Kelly.

Kelly had not said a word of congratulations when it was time to trail her show just after the 8 a.m. news (as other reporters like Peter Alexander managed to), but come 8:30 a.m. out on the piazza—where the hosts decamp every morning to hug and mug along with the people who have been gathered there, freezing but always manically overjoyed to be there—Kelly offered her congratulations in only the way she can: bizarrely.

Kelly always seems a little out of place at these collective 8:30 a.m. josh-pits. She’s a little stiff, and typically what she’s selling, salaciously and headline-grabbing at the top of the hour at 9 a.m.—one morning before Christmas, a woman accusing Lauer of sexual impropriety—is at a dramatic variant with the light and happy atmosphere of the main show.

On Tuesday, Kelly congratulated Kotb, and then made a ghoulish-sounding reference to how great this was especially as she knew that ten years previously Kotb had been in “a dark place.”

Obviously, Kotb did not want to elaborate on this “dark place,” and sure as hell not under Kelly’s solicitation. Kelly then warmly regaled her with compliments, and led the crowd in cheering her.

Kotb ignored Kelly’s invite to bare her soul, just as smoothly as she ignores the many provocations and unpredictable lunacies of Gifford, her co-host at 10 a.m.

This particular hour—with wine glasses full—began with a congratulatory phone call form Kotb’s mother and sister.

Gifford asked if Kotb could “sense everybody’s love,” and then—because this show is ruthlessly good with synergy—mentioned for the umpteenth time that Kotb and Guthrie were the cover stars of the next issue of People. Gifford revealed she had known about the promotion, and Kotb dished that she hadn’t been sure she’d be able to sleep the night before.

Her daughter, Haley Joy, adopted last February and whom Kotb talks about a lot on the show, had provided her with a necessary corrective to her excitement.

“I scooped her up, she got on my shoulder and sighed. I was crying because everything was right. I said if tomorrow doesn’t come, this is where I’m happiest. Everything else is gravy… If you want the world to snap into perspective in five seconds, hold your kid.”

There was some necessary brand consolidation to be done too, as Kotb emphasized her popular pairing with Gifford would survive: “You and me together forever, you’re stuck with me.” “And sadly so are the American people,” wisecracked her partner in return. “Some are committing harakiri right now.”

The wine-fueled-if-fundamentally-safe trainwreck nature of the show, fueled also by Gifford’s eccentricity, has become not only one of its trademarks, but one of its in-jokes.

“How do we do it, day after day,” they intone, lifted from a past show, at the opening of each edition.

Today, Gifford was full of beaming pride for her pal “Hody,” or “Hoda Woman,” as she is called.

“I’m sitting here with the co-anchor of the Today show,” she said before one commercial break.

It turned out this would be something of a cameo for Gifford, who also announced she was going to be off for most of January.

The rest of the hour was as low-fi loopy as usual: Gifford lasciviously sucking on raisins, opining “hack” meant cough, not useful tip, and complaining about the uselessness of using toothpaste to clean grimy cups.

“This is not in my contract. I say, throw it away and get a new one… You’re never going to learn a damn thing that’s helpful watching this show.”

Still, Gifford was deemed to be the more adept of the two in dealing with tricky social situations, such as jettisoning an unwanted gift, and being rude to people you hadn’t meant to hold the door open for. There was Bob Harper’s carb diet to promote (yet again, he’d already been on during the main show), trendy shoes to coo over, and the perils of internet-connected toys.

And then, right at the end of the 10 ‘o’ clock hour, it was the “give it away” prize draw.

Gifford wondered if Kotb was “too big” to do a prize draw now that she was co-anchor.

But of course, Kotb can. She has cracked the tonal shifts demanded of morning television in a way that Megyn Kelly can only dream of.

The women wondered if they would have to cancel “Spanky Tuesday,” as “Booze Day Tuesday” is also known.

But they were soon dancing and mock-spanking away.

“No,” said Kotb, “who could cancel Spanky Tuesday?” They continued dancing.

Their show won’t change much with Kotb’s elevation; their fun and transgressions are of the silly variety, and do not invalidate the ‘serious’ journalism required of Kotb between 7 and 9 a.m. Presumably, if there is a national tragedy to anchor in the main show, she may be relieved of her hosting duties at 10 a.m., if the tonal stretch that day is deemed too extreme. That wasn’t the case on day one, anyway.

“I’m spanking the co-anchor of the Today show,” Gifford said merrily. “How many people can say that?” “Joel,” said Kotb, referring to her partner, Joel Schiffman.

There’s perhaps an irony that a silly joke between friends about a sexual misdemeanor brought to an end the first day of Kotb’s co-anchoring job, which had been brought about by Lauer’s firing over allegations of sexual misconduct. But morning television is its own strange circus, and Kotb one of its most adept and effective ringmasters.