When women on average make 77 cents to a man's dollar and occupy 3 percent of the CEO spots of Fortunate 500 companies, the fact that a considerable amount to gender disparity persists in the television industry is not surprising, because, you know, it's an industry. But unlike in other workplaces, in TV the consequences of the gender gap – particularly at the executive level — can play out in front of millions of viewers. Such was the case with NBC's "Today" show ousting of its host Ann Curry, as examined unsparingly in Brian Stelter's new book "Top of the Morning." The gender dynamics of "Today" and other morning TV shows is not the main focus of Stelter's book, but it certainly plays a role. On the second page, explaining the origin of "Operation Bambi," the internal name of the plan to get rid of Curry, he writes:
[W]hile morning TV is created mostly for women, it is, even at this late date, quite obviously managed by men – men who like to think in terms of war, sabotage, and, well, embarrassing James Bond-y names for stuff they do in the office.
This was just one of many ways the predominantly male "Today" executives would mishandle Curry's firing, as described in Stelter's book.
Stelter doesn't get in too deep in gender dynamics of network morning television culture. "Top of the Morning" is more of a surface-level, play-by-play of the end of the "Today" show's 16 year winnings streak in the ratings. So I asked him about it in a phone interview.
"There's a gender gap throughout television and it's very pronounced in morning TV since these shows are mostly meant for women," he says. "I just wonder, if there was a more even split, men and women in the control, whether they would think differently about how they treat their anchors."
Stelter's ultimate thesis of the Curry debacle is that NBC was right to remove her from the hosting chair – he describes in painful detail her awkwardness in the position – but that it completely bungled the transition. This couldn't be more clear than her infamous farewell to the show, when she stammered, "For all of you who saw me as a groundbreaker, I'm sorry I couldn't carry the ball over the finish line, but man I did try," as tears rolled from her eyes. She did not get the greatest hits montage offered to past departing hosts, and NBC's vain attempt to fashion parting as a promotion fell flat. As she turned away from a kiss from co-host Matt Lauer, the optics could not be more horrifying – particularly as producers didn't even think to leave her a box a tissues. (Stelter contrasts the moment with "Good Morning America" host Robin Roberts's announcement of her MDS diagnosis — a tissue box was mercifully velcro-ed to the set.)
"What we'll never know is this," Stelter says, "if the producers and bosses were women, would they have seen Ann Curry's tearful good-bye coming?"
"Top of the Morning" never suggests that Curry firing was overtly sexist – as Stelter pointed out to me, "Today's" most successful host was a woman, Katie Couric. Yet in Curry's mind, she was held to a double standard. Stelter writes:
Several friends recalled her saying, "Chemistry, in television history, generally means the man does not want to work with the woman." They said she added, "It's an excuse generally used by men in positions of power to say, 'The woman doesn't work.'"
Her seeming paranoia may not have been entirely off base. When ratings continued to sink even after her removal, attention turned to Lauer. According to Stelter's report, he insisted that content – the type of stories "Today" was doing – and not chemistry was to blame.
Furthermore, someone who was interviewed by Curry many times told Stelter that Curry's desire to prove herself a real journalist got in her way: "When television types do that, particularly women, they rarely succeed." [emphasis added.]
The presence of sexism in 30 Rockefeller's hallowed halls is undeniable in Stelter's side anecdote about the rise of "Morning Joe." Once MSNBC officially picked up the political morning talk show, it designated Joe Scarborough and Willie Geist as co-hosts in their contracts, while Mika Brzezinski's was treated as a generic MSNBC contributor, despite Scarborough's insistence that she was a crucial element on the show ("the first time in history that a solo host of a program wanted a cohost," remarked one MSNBC exec). When he discovered that even after two years she was getting paid 1/14 of him, Scarborough insisted she be given a hefty bonus. Brzezinski, at first frustrated with Scarborough's interference, ultimately negotiated a raise and a contract upgrade herself, as she recounted in her own book "All Things at Once."
In "Top of the Morning," Scarborough and Brezezinski's relationship shines against Lauer and Curry's dysfunction, and is a testament to "Morning Joe's" success verses "Today's" stumbles.
Closing the gender gap alone wouldn't have solved the challenges "Today" was facing. "Top of the Morning" highlights a number of other factors outside the "Today" studio set at play: the fragmentation of the viewing audience, the rise of social media, sheer bad timing with the Olympics and various contract renewals.
But these are not an excuse for the internal culture it depicts, where corporate rivalries rule and the talent is often kept in the dark – albeit sometimes willingly — about the decisions being made about their employment. It's a cruel irony then, that though the vast majority of the wrangling takes place behind the scenes, it's those in front of the camera who take the fall.
"If they had explained themselves, if they had told the audience why they were making the change, if they had taken responsibility and apologized after Ann cried on air, I don't know if the viewer backlash would be nearly as severe as it was," Stelter says.
Yet in the ways the talent did get involved in the decision-making, the disparity at the top was reflected. Curry acted as if she was in denial of her fate and her replacement Savannah Guthrie buried her head firmly in the sand. Lauer was able to make his opinions on Curry well known, and while not singularly to blame for the debacle, he was very influential in NBC's haste to get rid of her.
Stelter says Jim Bell and the other executives involved are not evil people, and had good intentions at heart. But at the end of the day their decisions are subjective ones."Their personal opinions of the quality of these hosts play a huge part in who gets hired and who gets fired," says Stelter, and those subjectivities might not always match those of their audience.
A few more women on the top deciding who gets fired and how to do it would have likely helped "Today" better navigate those troubled waters.
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