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How Matt Lauer Almost Joined ABC News: NY Mag Story Hits NBC News ‘Like a Ton of Bricks’

New York magazine’e Joe Hagan files an impressively reported story on the trials and tribulations of NBC’s “Today” for this week’s cover. The PDF of the story was forwarded throughout the NBC News offices, studios and newsrooms yesterday in advance of its release online.

“It hit like a ton of bricks,” one NBC News staffer told TVNewser. “It was a rough day.”

The article tells the behind-the-scenes drama of what went down on NBC’s “Today,” including the departure of Ann Curry. There are also some new revelations, including just how close Matt Lauer came to joining ABC News. According to Hagan’s sources, all the parties involved believed that the deal was done, and that Lauer could be joining Katie Couric on her new ABC talk show:

And at the moment they informed him of Curry’s exit, Lauer himself appeared halfway out the door. Three months earlier, Lauer had been angered by a press leak that [Steve] Capus and [Jim] Bell were talking to Ryan Seacrest about possibly replacing him. (Lauer learned of the leak while being forced to stand outside the security gate at the White House Christmas party because Ann Curry had forgotten her driver’s license.) In trying to placate Lauer, Burke had given him a window to explore other jobs, but they made it clear that Seacrest was really just an insurance policy; they didn’t want Lauer to leave. But Lauer, possibly as a negotiating tactic, was taking leaving pretty seriously. He’d begun working closely with Zucker to develop an idea for ABC: the Katie Couric daytime talk show with Matt Lauer—together again. Lauer met with Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney, ABC’s parent company, who made a strong effort to recruit Lauer.

Prominently featured in these talks was the president of ABC News, Ben Sherwood, the tall, arch-browed former producer of Good Morning America. Fond of using epic historical analogies to describe business maneuvers, Sherwood had risen to the top of ABC News and was now eager to peel Lauer away from Today and finally beat his arch-rival.

There were issues of both timing and money, but the larger corporate strategy was clear: If ABC could poach Lauer, then Today, NBC’s cash cow, would fall from its perch, Good Morning America would be ascendant, and the entire NBC network would crumple like a house of cards. The ABC deal, in its final form, would feature Lauer in a dual role: co-host of the daytime program with Couric and also as an ABC News personality.

What happened next would color everything that happened ­after: For a few days in late March, Iger, Zucker, and Sherwood all believed they had been told by both Lauer and his agent, Ken Linder, that Lauer was coming to ABC. In their minds, the deal was done, with only the legalities to be worked out. But the following week, Lauer surprised them all by calling and saying thanks but no thanks. Iger was infuriated, as was Zucker. Sherwood would not soon forget: In the months to come, he would spend an inordinate amount of time poking at Lauer and reveling in Schadenfreude.

As we noted previously, before Curry took on the anchor role, Lauer wanted Couric to come back to “Today.” Lauer had previously talked about having discussions about joining Couric, but just how close he came remained unknown.

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