On the first workday of 2018, NBC News announced a promotion for one of its long-serving hosts. Hoda Kotb is now officially a co-anchor of The Today Show, replacing the disgraced Matt Lauer, who was fired late in 2017 after his pattern of sexual misconduct in the office was made public. Kotb’s promotion represents a meaningful turning of the page for Today, a series that’s only seen its ratings grow since it got rid of the lavishly paid Lauer. Kotb is a completely logical hire — part of the Today universe for years, blessed with real journalistic chops but also a merry human touch. The pick is revolutionary in other ways, too: Pairing Kotb with co-anchor Savannah Guthrie moves morning TV further away from the retro faux-husband-and-wife style pairs that have for so long defined the genre.
Kotb and Guthrie won’t be the first team of two women leading a morning show — they were preceded by Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts on Good Morning America — but the concept is a rarity nonetheless. After Sawyer’s departure in 2009, Good Morning America snapped back into a gender-mixed team with the hiring of George Stephanopoulos. Today and the 2012 relaunch of CBS This Morning have also been long defined by their male anchors, with accomplished women tending to play second fiddle. Kotb stepping in for Today‘s first all-female hosting team ever is a break from that tradition. It’s a welcome change, especially for a show that more than any other in its space defines itself as a “family.”
That word is instructive: The traditional male/female co-host team allows for a cheery, tamely flirtatious sense of bonhomie, a breakfast-table atmosphere that feels more 1950s than 2010s. It also allowed, in the case of Lauer and of CBS This Morning anchor Charlie Rose (also fired late last year after the revelation of offenses against women), for family dysfunction, as one star male anchor consumed the oxygen on-air thanks to perceived star quality and acted with brash impunity off-air.
Kotb is the anti-Lauer in many ways. For one, she has a real human touch and a willingness to recede when the moment calls for it. Her tenure as co-host of Today‘s fourth hour, in which the megacharismatic and freewheeling Kathie Lee Gifford has the tendency to run long, has clarified the degree to which Kotb, a former local news anchor and a Dateline correspondent, has the ability to think on her feet and to meaningfully engage with others. And though her résumé would hardly make her the natural choice for the goofball fourth hour, she’s made it entirely her own. The story —even if it’s a wine-inflected Gifford monologue — is the star, not Kotb herself.
That’s what makes Kotb’s hiring so interesting within the world of morning news. For so long, so much of the perceived battle over ratings was about the stars: Big names familiar well outside the small bubble of Americans who are home all morning, often men whose auras of glamor and seeming untouchability weren’t really compatible with the rumpled pleasantries of the genre and who, in Lauer’s case, set the tones of their shows in often bitterly cynical ways. Today‘s rising ratings since Lauer’s departure have indicated none of that mattered to begin with. Had Lauer departed the show earlier, it’s easy to imagine his replacement, after a long search, being another high-flying figure known for inserting himself into the story. Kotb’s appointment, instead, is exciting for how low-key it is. A franchise whose troubled history with women all seems to come back to one anchor is replacing him with a woman whose work has long been unglamorous but vital to the franchise.
Of course, Today can shed its skin but it will never fully shed its familiar rhetoric: In praising the newly Kotb at the end of Tuesday’s Today, Guthrie declared “This is a new day today, and we have so much to celebrate. What a beautiful family.” Maybe so. But, right now, the family is looking quite a bit more modern.