Top of the Morning by Brian Stelter (Grand Central Publishing, $31)

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By Stuart Nulman

Around this time a year ago, a full-fledged palace coup was quietly taking place within the confines of NBC’s Studio 1A in Rockefeller Plaza, the home of the news division’s most profitable program, the Today Show.

The target of this coup: Ann Curry, the show’s news reader/correspondent who was with “Today” for 15 years and assumed the co-host’s chair in June 2011 after the departure of Meredith Vieira. And who allegedly wielded the long knives? NBC News President Steve Capus, Today Show Executive Producer Jim Bell and long time “Today” co-host Matt Lauer. There was even a name for this nefarious plot to discredit and unseat Curry: “Operation Bambi”.

This shameful episode in on-air TV personnel shuffling is one of the dominant stories of Brian Stelter’s fascinating behind-the-scenes book “Top of the Morning”, which is a searing indictment of how cutthroat and backstabbing the world of morning TV really is.

Stelter, who is a media reporter for The New York Times, deeply probes into the two major combatants in the morning TV wars – Today and Good Morning America (GMA) – and to a lesser extent CBS This Morning and MSNBC’s Morning Joe. However, when it comes to “Today”, he has one main argument: Ann Curry was doomed from the moment she first sat beside Matt Lauer as co-host.

In fact, she didn’t stand a chance at a long tenure in that post. Her interviewing style, wardrobe and awkward manner of bantering with Lauer and the other Today Show personalities were the subject of mocking scrutiny by Bell and many of the show staffers, which precipitated Curry’s emotional, unceremonious departure on a live Today broadcast last June.

If Ann Curry is the tragic heroine of Stelter’s book, then Good Morning America’s co-host Robin Roberts emerges as the valiant heroine who faced adversity and lived to tell the tale, much to the show’s growing viewers (and increasing ratings). Her two successful battles against cancer were played out on the show, yet they never compromised her integrity and professionalism as a morning show co-host, and it increased her admiration and respect amongst the viewers and her GMA colleagues.

However, through all the on camera and behind the scenes shenanigans and manoeuvring at both shows (with talent bookers going as far as sleeping outside a guest’s hotel room so that personnel from the competing morning show wouldn’t spirit them away to their show’s studio), Stelter effectively argues that it all boiled down to two things: ratings, and the advertising revenues that go along with it. The Today Show developed a sense of arrogance and entitlement for the 852 straight weeks they scored as the #1 morning show in America, and how great the margin was between them and GMA. However, it was in the midst of “Operation Bambi” that Today began to lose ground show by show, week by week, until that defining moment on April 19, 2012 that GMA finally beat Today for the #1 spot and broke the streak (which Today hasn’t fully recovered from since).

Stelter is a fine media journalist, and has managed to keep his finger on the pulse of the volatile world of morning TV to produce a highly readable account that offers plenty of slam-bang, behind-the-scenes stories and revelations. However, there is one aspect of the book that borders on the absolutely frustrating. Good journalist that he is, Stelter sometimes peppers the text with some of his own arrogance and feeble attempts to be funny by inserting wisecracks and one liners with cultural references that leave the reader scratching their head and emitting a “huh?!?” reaction. Take these two attempts for example:

-“Like the jazz musician who has asked to get up early for that famous photograph ‘A Great Day in Harlem,’ (CBS This Morning Host Charlie) Rose seems unaware that there are two ten o’clocks.”

-“NBC needed the Olympics the way Smokin’ Joe Frazier needed the final bell in the Thrilla in Manila, the way George Washington needed nightfall in the Battle of Brooklyn.”

These are unnecessary distractions that needed to be trimmed in order to make the text much more tighter, and would not have hurt the narrative and the story it had to tell. In short … stick to reporting!

With that issue aside, “Top of the Morning” is a luridly fascinating book at the measures, conflicts, tensions and effective ingredients that make or break a show that serves as a news and information wake-up call to start your day on the right note. I must admit, I have been a regular viewer of the Today Show since 1989, and have never been a fan of Ann Curry. But after reading Stelter’s eye-opening book, I completely empathize with Curry after the shoddy treatment she got last year at the show she had worked faithfully for over 15 years … and seriously question whether I should continue to tune in to Matt, Savannah, Al and Natalie as my early morning viewing habit, and cross over to GMA?

This review originally appeared in the May 18, 2013 edition of the West End Times.

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