Alex Oliveira/Startraks
Stephen M. Silverman
March 25, 2013 07:20 AM

While the news is still playing out on the future of NBC’s Tonight Show, with Jimmy Fallon set to succeed Jay Leno, now comes the revelation that the network’s half-a-billion-dollar-a-year morning franchise, the Today show, nearly lost its No. 1 star: Matt Lauer.

Though currently the show is going through a turbulent period in the aftermath of Ann Curry’s departure and its ratings slip to ABC rival Good Morning America, Lauer, 55, was set to jump ship to ABC last year, when reports surfaced that Ryan Seacrest was possibly going to replace him on Today, reports New York magazine, in the issue hitting newsstands Monday.

“Lauer learned of the leak [about Seacrest] while being forced to stand outside the security gate at the White House Christmas party because Ann Curry had forgotten her driver s license,” writes journalist Joe Hagen.

According to the article, Lauer and ABC discussed Lauer’s reuniting with his former Today cohost Katie Couric, this time with the two on a daytime talk show. Bob Iger, chief of Disney (ABC’s parent company), was reportedly in on the talks – and wanted Lauer at ABC, in large part to topple Today from its long-running ratings perch.

The ABC offer turned into a negotiating tactic for Lauer, who signed a new NBC contract for a reported $25 million to work four days a week. (Seacrest joined Today in a different onscreen capacity.)

The following week, the Hollywood Reporter labeled Lauer “The Most Powerful Face in News.” When he saw the headline, reports New York, Lauer prophetically told the Reporter story’s author, “You just hung a huge target on my back.”

Since then, fairly or not, Lauer has been blamed for Ann Curry’s departure, earning him strong viewer disfavor. And though Today is still trailing GMA in the ratings, the NBC morning cast – Lauer, Savannah Guthrie, Al Roker and Natalie Morales – are still putting on a united front, reports New York.

And in related news, Monday’s The New York Times reports that when Fallon transitions into the new Tonight host in fall 2014, the late-night field will be very crowded (Arsenio Hall is also expected to rejoin the mix). As a result, “Fallon will be the king of a very small kingdom,” former David Letterman producer Robert Morton tells the newspaper.

The article also questions replacing ratings champ Leno. Writes Times media reporter Bill Carter: “NBC is taking a risk in planning changes to one of the few remaining areas where the network finishes first.”

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