When Matt Lauer took over from Bryant Gumbel as co-anchor of the TODAY Show 11 years ago, he had just one desire: “Don’t screw up.”
The degree to which Lauer accomplished that goal was recognized Tuesday night when he was inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame with a distinguished 2008 class that included Fox News CEO Roger Ailes and the venerable Sunday newsmagazine “60 Minutes.”
Meredith Vieira announced the news to TODAY’s audience on the Plaza at Rockefeller Center during the lead-in to the show’s 8 a.m. hour. Her announcement typified the good-natured ribbing between her and Lauer that viewers are accustomed to.
'We’re so proud’“If you’ve ever seen Matt Lauer throw a baseball, you’ll know that he will never have a bust at Cooperstown. Let’s face it,” Vieira observed.
“That’s not nice,” Lauer protested.
“But wait,” Vieira continued, cutting him off. “You are a Hall of Famer today because last night, Matt was inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame. We’re so proud of him.”
As the crowd, bundled against the morning chill, applauded, Lauer took the news with a bit of self-deprecating humor that also took a jab at the length of the induction program.
“At the beginning of the event, I didn’t think I was old enough to be in the Hall of Fame,” he said. “By the end of the event, I was old enough.”
NBC Universal President and CEO Jeff Zucker hired Lauer in 1994 as TODAY’s news anchor when Zucker was the show’s executive producer. Lauer had already done fill-in work at that job while he was co-anchoring the 5 p.m. news at NBC’s New York affiliate, WNBC.
Zucker told the Hall of Fame that hiring Lauer was an easy call: “He was the most natural person on television we'd ever seen.”
As natural as he may have been, though, a few years earlier Lauer was all but out of work in broadcasting, and working part-time as a tree trimmer to make ends meet.
Delayed diplomaBorn in New York on Dec. 30, 1957, Lauer grew up in Connecticut and went to Ohio University to study telecommunications. Before he graduated, he got a job in 1979 as producer of the noon news for WOWK in Huntington, W. Va. Eighteen years later, when he was the commencement speaker at his alma mater, Ohio University decided that his work experience would fulfill the four credit hours he needed to get his degree and awarded him his diploma.
From West Virginia, Lauer moved to Boston, Philadelphia, Providence and Richmond, Va., hosting various news and talk shows. In 1989, he became the host of a three-hour live news interview show on New York’s WWOR. The show was canceled when the station was sold, and that’s when Lauer found himself scrambling for work.
In 1992, he got the job with WNBC, where he caught Zucker’s eye.
By the time Bryant Gumbel decided to leave TODAY, Lauer already had extensive experience as news anchor and fill-in host. He took over as co-anchor with Katie Couric on Jan. 6, 1997.
Even though he’d hit the big time, thoughts of previous career struggles were still branded on Lauer’s mind. “I thought the show would go in the tank, and there would be only one person to point the finger at — me,” he told the Hall of Fame.
Lauer credits Gumbel with teaching him that the key to success was to be superprepared. His personality and interviewing skills connected with the audience, and TODAY’s ratings continued to climb.
“Matt asks tough questions in a professional way, with all the follow-ups necessary,” Zucker told the Hall of Fame. “He is the perfect advocate for the viewer.”
In 1998, Lauer had a lengthy sit-down interview with Hillary Clinton just after the Monica Lewinsky affair broke. When two planes flew into the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001, he was in the anchor chair. He’s had testy exchanges with Tom Cruise and Ann Coulter when he refused to back down from asking probing questions.
Last year, when Princess Diana’s sons, the Princes Harry and William, decided to sit down for their first extensive interviews with an American television network, Lauer was the man who asked the questions.
For the past six years, he’s traveled nearly 150,000 miles around the globe during TODAY’s annual “Where in the World is Matt Lauer?” His destinations have included Mount Everest, the Amazon rain forest, Argentina, Red Square, Easter Island, the Great Wall of China and many other exotic locations.
When Lauer gets back home, he lives in New York with his wife, Annette Roque Lauer, and their three children: Jack, Romy and Thijs.
The Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame induction was hosted by Lauer’s old co-host Couric, now CBS Evening News anchor.