Jim Bell’s Damage Control PR interviews Show He’s Not Listening To His Audience:

So yesterday Jim Bell, executive producer of NBCs Today show went on a major damage control PR spree and gave interviews to the New York Times, TV Guide, TV Newser and probabaly a few more outlets I unaware of. GMA has developed a nice consistent run at #1 (11 out of the last 13 weeks) and the last 4 weeks in the coveted 25-54 demo. GMA has continued to do this, even as their MVP Robin Roberts is on medical leave. The Today show has gotten some bad press lately, though I’d argue most of it is at their own doing, and he clearly was fighting back on the offense. I greatly respect an EP fighting for his team and standing up for his show, though given that the audience is clearly responding to some of their recent moves, it seems rather curious Mr. Bell is in full No apology, attack mode. To me, what’s mostly missing is some self reflection and dare I say, humility.

I’ll obnoxiously summarize the gist of his interviews: The Today Show is fine, no it’s great, Savannah is great and it was totally my call that Ann was fired, not Matt’s. Oh and GMA is only winning because they suddenly are a tabloid show.  We’re still the real deal and won’t stoop to their levels.

What struck me strange, was the complete and utter lack of humility and little regret in how anything was handled. The insults lobbed at the competition feel like a version of grammar school playground taunts.

I remember right before GMA hit their first week at number 1 in April, when it was getting awfully close, he told the NY Times, rather pompously, that it wasn’t gonna happen. Two weeks later he was proven wrong. Over the rest of the spring, both shows traded weeks at #1. I’ll argue that certain segments of the media seemed to be using tons of caveats to explain the GMA wins. People were saying on the days after DWTS, they feature a booted contestant and they get a big boost. I was baffled why this was being used as an explanation since DWTS had 13 previous seasons, (much higher rated ones I’ll add) that never resulted in a GMA win. Plus, one of the days GMA was winning this spring was Friday, a day that contained no DWTS tie in.

No one was saying the obvious reason GMA was winning  – The GMA team was clicking. Robin Roberts, in my humble opinion, is the warmest presence on morning TV. She’s a great journalist, but also her kindness, warmth and affability is genuine. In the last year GMA added Josh Elliot, who in addition to being a good reporter, also has an affable, friendly, warm personality. It’s clear that this GMA team just dig each other. People enjoy waking up to that. It’s also clear that wasn’t what the Today show had been displaying as of late. After the TV season in May ended, Today had a couple of weeks run back at the top. Many of the pundits were saying “see DWTS is over, so is GMAs run at the top”. This coincided with tons of news reports that Ann Curry was about to be booted, Someone at NBC had clearly leaked the news and it was only a matter of when. What followed was that awkward and heartbreaking goodbye which we all witnessed in June. Whether you thought Ann wasnt a good fit as co anchor, this was a 15 year employee, someone who had been part of that winning team  NBC always referred to as a “family”. Ann shattered that myth in her goodbye when she said ” you the audience are my real family”. Even the most casual viewer fo the Today show witnessed the body langauge of Ann and how she was miserable at being forced out from the show she loved. Look, transitions of this sort tend not to be perfect, but this was just heartbreaking. Mr Bell, can pretend this wasn’t handled badly, but after Ann’s brief 5 minute goodbye, they came back from commercial and didn’t even mention her. Now I’ve followed this business for a while, and I get it, you want to minimize the bad news and get on with the show. But this was different. This was a 15 year employee who you paraded around for years as one-fourth of your winning “family”. More importantly, this was someone the audience loved. This was someone who didn’t do something wrong, she just wasnt a perfect fit for the anchor spot. Meredith Vieira got a 2 hour sendoff – she was a 5 year employee of the Today show. Obviously she left voluntarily and Today brass was miserable to let her go. Still, I cant help but regard the abrupt dismissal of Ann Curry and nary a mention of her immediately after, as hugely arrogant on the Todays show part. From a business perspective, it’s just silly. They’ve seen the research , they know how beloved she was for a great portion of the audience. They also had the bad transition of Jane Pauley to Deborah Norville as a warning. NBC always boastfully claims “We handle transitions well”. I’d say after the Jay/Conan debacle and this episode –  it’s time to retire that, because recent history suggests it’s not true at all. Even former Today anchor, Katie Couric, recently expressed disappointment and surprise about Ann's exit was handled.

I guess where I am most shocked at Mr. Bell’s lack of contrition is the mere fact what happened immediately after Ann was off the Today show: The audience spoke. You can use DWTS etc. all you want as reasons for the GMA ascendance, but numbers don’t lie. The day after Ann’s ouster, GMA was number 1 and except for the two Olympic weeks it has continued to be. NBC quickly said but they’re not number 1 in the coveted (read: big Money) 25-54 demo, well sorry NBC but now they have been for 4 consecutive weeks there too.

Mr. Bell your audience is speaking to you in 2 ways:
1) blowing up message boards about how pissed they are about how Ann's departure was handled
2) way more importantly, they voted with their Remotes: the last non Olympic week you won (aside from the Olympics) was Ann's last week

The fact that GMA was back at #1 the first day there was no Olympics on the night before also speaks volumes. It says that all those extra people were watching Today solely for Olympic coverage and they couldn’t even convert a number of them to stay.

Like I said, I appreciate Mr. Bell standing up for his show like a mother to her cub. It’s also very easy for me to comment here as a spectator, but I have never shepherded a morning show or been in charge of Olympic coverage like he has. He’s clearly a talented guy and in the TV biz, shows ebb and flow all the time. Today still commands a huge audience that anyone in TV would covet. But what I find most perplexing is the lack of humility and the hubris in his defense of his show and his decisions. I think by having little regret over how things have been handled still dismisses his audience even as they are actively voicing their displeasure.

I think if he took a more contrite and humble tone in his interviews, he might be more successful in his defense. Something like this maybe: “Well we think we made the right decision, and we 100 percent stand by it, but we should have given more reverence and respect and time to Ann’s departure. She is clearly a much-loved member of our team and in our haste to minimize negativity we didn’t give her, her due and acknowledge all she has contributed to the show. I’d say to our audience they are right, and I have heard them, and for that I am truly sorry”.

Mr. Bell is adamant in saying Matt had nothing to do with the decision and whether that is true or not, the audience at least partly holds him responsible. I think the most damning evidence is the way Ann wouldn’t look at him in her goodbye or her cold rebuff of him in that only other time they were together on The Today show Olympic week. Clearly NBC hoped to do damage control a few weeks after Ann’s ouster when they had an Olympic audience and they hoped that people would see Matt and Ann playing nice and all would be forgiven. Guess they didn’t count on Ann not playing along. Good for her for not offering fake pleasantries. But again, whatever the reason she’s not there, even the most casual viewer couldn’t miss the coldness there. That’s a problem.

I’d argue that should Mr. Bell really want to do damage control, Matt is a much better advocate than he is. Matt remains one of the best interviewers on TV but he can also be sincere at times. Matt could sit down with Oprah on her Next Chapter show where you know she would ask all the important questions. I could see a scenario where Matt is open, honest and maybe even humble and a tad contrite with Oprah and that would probably be the first and important step to winning back viewers.

One more assertion of Mr. Bell that just felt like a hollow taunt was how GMA is only winning because they have become more of a tabloid/entertainment show. Is GMA more entertainment oriented than they used to be? Absolutely yes, but you know what, so is Today. Your morning show couldn’t cut away on 9/11 while Kris Kardashian was being interviewed. Whatever the entertainment/news ratio is on both shows, it’s not as if you’re the PBS Newshour. CBS This Morning is the only show zagging while everyones is zigging and for the first time presenting a clear alternative to the two leaders with a more news oriented format. (They finally smartly realized they’re not gonna beat them at the same game, so play differently. Smart). But Mr. Bell, you can’t claim your show is not playing the entertainment game too.

I think the real reason GMA has been winning is because they have a team in place that is clicking, that clearly like each other. People like to wake up to that whether its their favorite morning zoo team on the radio or their favorite “family” as NBC likes to refer to it, on TV. When Katie, or even Meredith, Matt and Al were so dominant, it’s clear the audience liked watching them together. It’s also very clear the morning show audience likes watching the GMA team currently.

I’m clearly not the only one the feels Mr. Bell’s interviews came across as too arrogant. Go to any site where he gave one and read the comments. People are expressing themselves similarly, albeit much less sympathetically. Before you say well that’s just the negative aspect of the internet, I’d normally agree, but in this case the audience has also voted with their remotes. I’d suggest Mr. Bell take a lesson from the current number one morning show. ABC is running a new promo touting their recent success (see it below) but at no point in the promo do they say “we’re number one” .  They say “we’re riding high” but the main point of the promo is “it’s all because of you (the audience)”  and what follows is an autotuned riff of the anchors saying “thank you”. The most uttered phrase in the promo is “thank you” – to the audience… Hmmm acknowledging the audience, thanking them, not being boastful of number 1 status…. Humility and appreciation seem to be working for GMA. Mr. Bell, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to take a cue from them in this regard.

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2 Responses to Jim Bell’s Damage Control PR interviews Show He’s Not Listening To His Audience:

  1. Great insights from you, as always. I can’t wait to see how this latest chapter in the appalling, historic decline of NBC plays out. It’s amazing to me that Zucker’s ouster and the Conan fiasco were just the beginning.

  2. Bobbie says:

    Excellent insight! As I’ve been saying, Bell & Lauer & NBC management are not hard to read! They reap what they sow & only have themselves to blame! YES! No humility – period! Exclusive of their viewers! It’s a power trip @ Today, unlike at GMA where it’s solid team work! Ann’s dismissal was on national TV & you can be assured that the viewers will not forget how she was treated! GO GMA!

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