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So What Do You Do, Jim Bell, Executive Producer, Today?

The football star-turned-television producer discusses Katie's departure, Meredith's arrival, and the fourth hour launch

By Diane Clehane - August 8, 2007
It seems only fitting that Jim Bell wound up in a job whose duties could be defined as being both Today's team captain and head cheerleader. A former all-Ivy League defensive tackle who cut his teeth in television working on NBC's Olympic coverage, the morning show's executive producer says the analogies between sports and morning television are endless. As Bell explains: "You're preparing for opponents and coming up with strategy and doing so with a group of people that come together where there is a lot of work that goes on off camera that people don't see, the same way they don't see the work that happens for the athletes when they're not on game day." A seasoned TV vet who oversees every aspect of one of television's most venerable -- and profitable -- franchises, Bell quarterbacked Katie Couric's fond farewell, Meredith Vieira's arrival, and is currently developing a playbook for Today's fourth hour.

Name: Jim Bell
Position: Executive producer, Today
Resumé: Fresh out of college, Bell began his career in television joining NBC in 1990; two years later was tapped to work on the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Worked on every subsequent Olympics since; between the games has toiled on a cross section of major sports events as a producer including the 1997 NBA Finals, the French Open, and Wimbledon. Created and produced "Gameday NY" for Mike'd Up on WNBC. Joined Today in current capacity in April 2005.
Birthdate: July 20, 1967
Hometown: Branford, Connecticut
Education: B.A. in government, Harvard University
Marital Status: Married to Angelique; four sons Jimmy, 11, Lucas, 9, Emmett, 8, and Nicholas, 4
First section of the Sunday Times: "Real Estate. It's just juicy. I think a lot of people grab that real estate section to see what's going on out there. It's a little bit of fun, fantasy -- a little bit of everything."
Favorite television show: "The Wire. It's a brilliant ensemble cast featuring a lot of people you probably never heard of. I just think it's painfully real."
Guilty pleasure: "Anything from Williams-Sonoma. They just have the coolest little gadgets. I do love to cook and I will often put those things to good use. They're not wasted in the cabinet."
Last book read: Uncle Wiggly's Nighttime Stories. "It's a great, great series. Old school."

How would you say we've gotten to where you are?
Ah ... [laughs]. That's a big question. The short answer: I don't know. The more specific answer has to do with the unlikely similarities between morning television and the Olympics.

Did you always think you'd wind up in television?
No. I thought I'd go to law school and maybe end up in politics, but I took a little detour and lived in Spain. I was hired over there to push a guy in a wheelchair [Randy Falco, then vice president of Olympic programming] who had snapped his Achilles tendon playing basketball. From that experience, I caught the attention of [NBC Sports President] Dick Ebersol. I got to know him and he suggested that I take a job working on the Olympics profiles unit, which goes around and does all the 'up close and personals.' I took him up on it and then worked on the Barcelona Olympics, had a wonderful time and thought that television was, in fact, something that I might be interested in doing.

After Barcelona, I was fortunate enough to be asked by Mr. Ebersol to join him in the sports division. It was this incredible period for network sports television because you had Michael Jordan winning championships for the Bulls, we were covering Super Bowls, the World Series, the Atlanta Olympics, Wimbledon, and preparing for the Sydney Olympics. The sense of camaraderie and family really came together when we were covering these events and that's really what I loved about it. When some of the major sports properties went elsewhere, I personally refocused almost entirely on the Olympics. Sydney, Salt Lake, and Athens were events that I was very much involved in and they involved a huge amount of production planning.

What are skills you developed on those jobs that have served you well in your current position?
I think it's important to have a plan and keep things as simple as possible. The more complex and bigger the task is, the more the need is there to keep things simple. A single-mindedness to the task at hand is something I've brought to those events in the past. It's been something I've been able to share with the people I've been fortunate enough to work with on those events. In the case of the Olympics during those blessed 17 days and nights, or in the Today show's case, every morning from 7 [a.m.] until 10 [a.m.], it helps keep people on the same path.

How has the work you did juggling star athletes translated into working with talent at your job as executive producer of Today?
Whether you're an editor, a gofer, or Matt Lauer, you appreciate clarity and focus. All anybody can ask for in an executive producer is a sense of direction and sense of guidance: "This is what we're doing and here's how we're doing it." As long as you have an answer for that, I think everyone appreciates it. There's really no mystery with talent versus anyone else in professional life: they bleed, they put their pants on one leg at a time.

How does your background in sports translate specifically into working in morning television?
It's competitive. It's rigorous training whether it's physical or mental. At 10 o'clock, we don't put our feet up and say, "I'll have my latte now." We launch into the next day, the next week, the next month.

What's a typical day like for you?
I get up at 3:45 a.m. and it's usually wheels up from [my home in] Connecticut at 4:15. I get in around 5. We make any sort of changes to the show around 5 and put in our last pitches on how we think the show should stack up and what, if any, overnight news has developed. 5 to 7 is a fairly busy time and we try to make it as productive as we can and react. It's a simple thing, but the show is called Today -- so hopefully there's not a lot of yesterday in it. We do the show; I try to get out of the control room by 9 to get a jump on the next day. I watch the third hour in my office, have a meeting. If I'm lucky, I try to get a workout in and then at 10:15 or 10:30 we launch into the next day. By 11 o'clock, we really want to have a show we could put on the air if we had to for the next day. It's an important shift. There was a mindset at one point, given the way that news happens and the speed of it, I think, that things could be left until later and I learned early enough it was better to give the producers, correspondents, and reporters a chance to get the right interviews, shoot the right B roll, and book the right guests and get it launched early. We've been really focused on that and it works.

Of course, there are times when there are a lot of changes between what we think is going to be the show at 11 o'clock and what winds up on the air at 7 o'clock the next morning. There are as many days when it doesn't change, frankly. I try to leave by about 5:30 or 6 to hopefully spend a little time and have dinner with my family and read Uncle Wiggly.

What's the biggest story out there at the moment?
The war in Iraq and Afghanistan -- especially Iraq. I think it's dominating the political cycle, it's dominating the news coverage, it's dominating discussions whether you're talking about Capitol Hill, the White House, or the Pentagon. It's obviously a huge story in terms of the 2008 election.

How is the war going to effect election coverage once things really start heating up?
It's going to be right there on the forefront for all the candidates to address as the story develops. I'm not sure I can come up with what's second. It's that big.

Paris Hilton's post jail life is at the polar opposite of the spectrum. The uproar over the interview, and Today's subsequent decision to pull the reported $1 million offer to do it, drew a lot of criticism. What do you say to those who called it 'checkbook' journalism?
The question is flawed: NBC News does not pay for interviews. There was clearly a lot of interest in this interview. There was even considerable coverage of the process of who was getting it, and I'd bet that at least a few of the people wringing their hands over this story tuned in to watch.

Okay, so let's set the record straight. Did Today 'get' Hilton and later decide not to do the interview? If so, why? Was there any financial offer of any kind made to her from NBC for licensing of images or photographs relating to the interview?
Today never had a confirmed interview with Paris Hilton. I know this starts to sound like a broken record, but NBC News does not pay for interviews. Never has. Never will. I know there are those out there who would like to make it more complicated than that, but it's really just that simple.

Will Today being pursuing an interview with Lindsay Lohan in light of her current troubles?
Of course we would be interested in an interview with Lindsay Lohan. She's been a guest on Today several times.

"Matt [Lauer] is the hottest thing in television news right now."

You're launching the fourth hour of Today on September 10 -- word is that it's not going to be a news hour, but more of an infotainment hour. How would you describe it?
I'm not sure how to describe infotainment, but I think it's best to look at the third hour of Today, which has a healthy mix of segments on topics like relationships to women's health to home improvement, fashion and fitness. I almost don't think the 'tainment' part is accurate if it's short for entertainment -- you might see more of that at 8:30.

[The fourth hour] is a natural extension of the third hour of the show. [For example,] health is such a huge topic and [there are] so many ways to cover it. The fourth hour is a logical place to see more of that.

When will you be announcing the hosts of the new hour?
I expect that we'll make the announcement on the fourth hour team in the next few weeks. We didn't want this to get lost in the middle of the summer and as such, are waiting until we get closer to the launch.

Any hints on who it might be?
I think it's going to be familiar faces. We feel like what happened in the past with Later Today was it just had the Today name, but it was like, "Who are these people?" I think you're going to see it in a setting more consistent with the third hour and with people more consistent with the third hour as it currently exists.

The war of words between the morning shows has heated up this year. What's your take on your competitors these days?
Historically there's been a healthy rivalry. My position has generally been whether we're talking about the show or the competition, we're always better talking about ourselves. Not to dismiss them, but we really compete with ourselves. We went through sweeps undefeated and we didn't lose a single day. People can talk about the gap one way or another and pick a week here and there, but the bottom line is the Today brand is as healthy, if not healthier, than it's ever been. We don't feel there's much to be gained from the silliness that occasionally rears its head. We're proud of the show we put on day in and day out. Meredith has been great. Matt is the hottest thing in television news right now.

Why do you say that?
I just think he's on a great roll with some of these gets. There's an ease about what he's doing right now. It's not forced; he doesn't struggle. Whether he's interviewing a politician, a movie star or royalty, he just always has the right tone. He always asks the right questions and it's never about him. He's without peer right now.

Let's talk about his former co-host for a moment. Was Katie's grand send-off your idea?
It was a collaborative idea. I'm proud of that day and that show and the idea behind it, which was to celebrate what was an incredible fifteen year career and wildly successful run here at Today. It was a no brainer.

Have you spoken to her since she's moved to CBS?
I have.

Do you speak often?
Not that frequently. We've emailed now and again. I think we're both pretty busy. She's working away and doing what she can over there. Eventually, I think we'll connect and break some bread.

Now that it's been almost a year since Meredith replaced Katie, how would you say the transition period went? Did things go as you expected?
I would say it went about as expected. I really felt that based on what I had seen from her on television over the last twenty years and what my meetings with her had been like, there was no question we had the right person. Fortunately, that put the ball in the producer's court to come up with good bookings and get her up to speed in terms of the daily grind and the beast that is the show. I think she's done so brilliantly. I understand -- maybe I don't understand -- perhaps because it's the Today show maybe we don't quite or Meredith doesn't quite get the credit she deserves because I think she deserves an enormous amount of credit for what she's done to be able to seamlessly step into that.

It's over two years now [since Bell joined the show] and I remember what it was like when I started. It's a lot. It's an adjustment to your personal life, to your professional life -- you have to be fairly well-versed on an enormous number of topics, you have to be fast, you have to be smart, you have to be funny. Meredith is all those things.

Where do you get your best ideas?
[Laughs.] It's generally outside the office. I like to go for walks in the woods or on the beach with my family. Something might strike me in the car. It's usually by accident. It generally doesn't happen in scheduled meetings. If we schedule a half hour idea meeting, nobody is going to come up with much. [Laughs.] You're better off saying, "Let's all go see and movie and go out for a beer afterwards," and then you might get lucky.

Do you have a motto?
One day at a time, my friend. That's certainly a good motto to have in this job because it's an every day job in comparison to the Olympics where you had two years to prepare for two weeks. This is a daily grind. But I think my motto is more "This too shall pass," because it's the kind of phrase that keeps your spirits up when times are tough and it keeps you humble when times are going well.

Diane Clehane is a contributing editor to TVNewser and Fishbowl NY. She writes the Lunch at Michael's column.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This interview has been excerpted for clarity and length.]

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