The inside of Katie Couric’s intestines is probably the last thing anyone would expect to see on the nation’s favorite morning show, Today.
The inside of Katie Couric’s intestines is probably the last thing
anyone would expect to see on the nation’s favorite morning show,
The show’s producers weren’t exactly sure if colon cancer would play
well with viewers - even though it was a topic in which the ever-popular
Couric had a cause- but they took the risk and it added to the
47-year-old’s popularity. It became a topic of conversation everywhere,
and was the cover story on Time magazine.
Cancer is just one of numerous serious issues tackled by the Today
An appearance by attorney general Janet Reno during the Elian saga
boosted viewership figures to the highest levels in months, 6.5 million;
the average is just over six million. More recently producers arranged
for Senator John McCain’s return to Vietnam for the 25th anniversary of
the fall of Saigon. The visit became national news when Reuters picked
up McCain’s comments criticizing President Clinton’s plans for a
For those not familiar with Today’s offering (and you’re in PR?), it is
a blend of interviews with newsmakers from the worlds of politics,
business, media, entertainment and sports. Sandwiched in between is a
fair amount of feature material, from best barbecues to fashion
It’s this softer subject matter that offers public relations pros their
Today has two supervising producers, Don Nash and Betsy Alexander, who
oversee much of the story selection. They present their ideas to
executive producer Jeff Zucker, who has the final word on what gets on
air. Nash handles the first 45 minutes of the show and breaking news,
while Alexander is responsible for what goes in the 7:45 to 9:00
With 75 editorial staff, including 35 producers and 25 associate
producers, finding your way around the show is not the easiest task.
Nash says he should be the first port of call for pitches and adds that
he’ll forward appropriate outlines to Alexander, who looks after many of
Nash, who transferred from NBC Burbank to New York five months ago, says
he receives around 100 e-mail pitches a day. Maybe five of those ideas
will make it on air.
Nash begins his day at 8:30 and, since he’s not in the control room, he
keeps tabs on what America is talking about on any particular day.
He starts his day sifting newspapers and newswires looking for angles
that will tie Today to current events. Afternoons are spent deleting
those 95 odd e-mails that don’t make the grade.
Nash says there are three essentials to include in any pitch: ’What is
the story about, why would it interest our viewers and how can I reach
For the most part, however, you are wasting your time if you are
pitching products: ’I get this all the time. I got a product story about
some potato chips. We are never going to do a story on potato
But Nash tells of a more intelligent pitch from someone proffering a
pair of champagne experts in advance of the millennium. ’We did a blind
taste test which was a lot of fun - there are a lot of ways to create a
Nash adds that Today accepts beta quality video and broadcast standard
b-roll. Recently the show’s travel editor, Peter Greenberg, blasted the
travel industry for the quality of the material it forwarded to him. ’It
helps to think of a visual, but keep it brief,’ says Nash.
In June 1994, Today moved its studio to a glass-walled ground floor
building in Rockefeller Plaza, which has become a tourist attraction in
Now ABC’s Good Morning America and CBS’ Early Show have similar outdoor
studios, though neither show has taken a bite out of Today’s ratings,
thanks to a growth in the morning audience. ABC’s show, fronted by Diane
Sawyer and Charlie Gibson, is up to 4.68 million viewers. It has
featured headline-grabbing interviews with Elian Gonzalez and
Millionaire bride Darva Conga. Meanwhile CBS’ year-old, Early Show is
down in ratings from the show it replaced.
In a recent interview, executive producer Zucker attributed Today’s
success to a mix of hosts, studio and story selection. Anchors Katie
Couric and Matt Lauer work with a range of other regular contributors,
both CNBC correspondents and outside experts. There are around five
guests appearing per show.
One way of getting a mention on the Today show is to work a
Online publicist Sandy Muller, based in Springfield, OR, has known Today
show computer specialist James Oppenheim for a number of years. She
pitched him Netcaptor, a program that helps parents screen Web sites for
their kids. Since Oppenheim gets to pick the subject matter he covers as
an occasional contributor he picked up the idea, which was aired.
’I have worked with James for a number of years and when he mentioned my
client I sent him a thank-you note. He said I was the only person to do
that,’ says Muller, adding that PR pros should make a habit of sending
such notes to segment producers.
Since CBS’ Early Show has lost many of its core older viewers, Today may
be making some attempt to bring them over to the peacock network.
But Nash says mature people have been a key demographic for some
The Washington, DC-based Consumer Federation of America has had a lot of
recent success pitching the show lately. Jack Gillis, the federation’s
director of public affairs, and his team usually get a single pick up
per year when they produce a guide to buying cars, but recently they’ve
been hitting the jackpot. Gillis has been on to discuss issues such as
discounts for senior citizens and how to keep your personal papers
Says Ailis Aaron, research associate at the federation: ’We do the
research and we work with them on the scripts which is kind of unusual.
We’ll give the producer our ideas, then they’ll come back with the ones
Today is planning a second segment on discounts for seniors. Nash says
Today tries to do three pieces a week for that age group. ’We’ve had
tons of calls as a result of Jack’s appearance,’ says Aaron.
Nash says the most challenging aspect of his job is rejecting good
stories that can’t fit on the two-hour show. Making your pitch one that
gets picked up depends on your ability to explain its relevance or to
tie it to a news event.
NBC Today Show
30 Rockefeller Plaza
Room 380 East
New York, NY 10112
Tel: (212) 664 4602
Executive producer: Jeff Zucker
Senior broadcast producer: Michael Bass
Supervising producers: Don Nash and Betsy Alexander
Special projects producer: Mary Alice O’Rourke
Book editor: Andrea Smith
Arts producer (Gene Shalit’s segment): Guy Ludwig
Senior talent coordinator: Doug Vaughn.