MEDIA: NBC’s Today rocks steady at the plaza - The Today show has been at the top of the ratings for the past six years. Claire Atkinson finds out why

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, 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

way in.

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

the contributors.

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

they like.’

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.

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