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EARLY TO RISE MATT LAUER AND 'TODAY': HEALTHY, WEALTHY AND WISE

Matt Lauer is having a record-breaking year. It seems as if every week NBC sends out a press release documenting the record ratings for the morning program he co-hosts, "Today."

Last week, NBC's morning program averaged a 5.8 national rating. That's not only the show's second-highest rating in more than a decade, it also is higher than several network prime-time series.

In Buffalo, "Today" is tied for second place with Channel 4 with a 4 rating, which doesn't sound so impressive until you realize that even though it airs at 7 a.m., it's the highest rating on WGRZ-TV until 4 p.m.

Of course, co-host Katie Couric shares credit with Lauer for the program's success. But because she has had a heartbreaking year with the death of her husband, Lauer has had to carry the show for the past several weeks.

His profile probably hit its high point the day he conducted a sensitive yet probing interview of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton when the Monica Lewinsky scandal first rocked her husband's presidency.

It was the kind of balanced performance that enhanced Lauer's reputation and propelled "Today" to its largest ratings victory over ABC's "Good Morning, America" in 18 years. Not bad for a 40-year-old who was unemployable for about 18 months in the 1980s.

That decade was almost entirely omitted from the biography NBC passed out before an interview session in California, which prompted me to ask Lauer what he did in those years.

"I moved around a lot," he said. "I supported various moving companies around the world."

It seems after being fired from four jobs and having a horrible experience on a terrible show in New Jersey, Lauer decided to take off for six months to rebuild his reputation.

"I thought that it was almost like trying to let an odor wear off," he said.

The exile lasted a year longer, which prompted him to consider working for a tree trimming company.

With his People magazine cover-boy looks, you'd think Lauer would have realized he was a TV natural. But he originally started out as a TV producer in Huntington, W. Va., and fell into on-camera work by accident. When a reporter left, he tried out for the job and got it. "Once I did on-camera pieces, people said, 'You should pursue this,' " Lauer said.

The native New Yorker is fortunate that he doesn't have a trace of a New Yawk accent, which means network executives find him TV-friendly.

"That's a fluke," Lauer concedes. "My mom didn't have it. My dad didn't have it. I grew up in a neighborhood where people three houses down the block did have it. . . . A lot of my friends have an accent. I don't know how it happened. It's a very lucky thing in this business. I don't think this would have happened if I had it."

His friends included the sons of former NBC Sports executives Scotty Connal and Chet Simmons, who first got him interested in broadcasting. Until those months of unemployment, it seemed to be a wise choice.

But three hours after he considered that tree trimming job, a representative of NBC's station in New York City hired him to anchor the morning news.

He was spotted by "Today," read the news on that show for a few years, subbed for co-host Bryant Gumbel when Gumbel vacationed and then was named Gumbel's replacement slightly more a year ago.

Generally, changes in hosts lead to a ratings decline. But Lauer was an instant success. He waited nervously for the ratings after his first morning on the job.

"I was scared," Lauer told me. "The one nightmare I had is that Bryant would leave on Friday, we'd have this incredible farewell, and then the ratings would come out the following week and there would be a decline. The problem with that is, they can only point the finger at one person. The only thing that would have changed would have been me.

"I was extremely happy that we held the rating. It was probably the thing that gave me the most confidence during the first year."

He obviously still carries around some baggage from his earlier failures, even though his agent, Ken Lindner and Associates, tried to reassure him back then.

"They said the right thing," Lauer said. "It's a business that breeds insecurity when things aren't going well, and you need somebody to kind of tell you it would be all right. Or perhaps more importantly, sometimes you need somebody who can be honest with you, look you in the face and say, 'You know what, take the tree trimming job.' "

Though my conversation with Lauer was a few weeks before the Clinton scandal and the death of Katie Couric's husband, Jay Monahan, several relevant topics came up. Asked about the success of "Today," Lauer said: "The moments we look for, that we look to shine, are the breaking news stories. . . . I'm not saying it has to be a war. It can be anything from this horrible story of the cult in which 39 people committed suicide or the stock market dropping 300 points. Those are the mornings you go to work with extra vigor in your step. It has been a very busy year."

Of course, success in TV also relies on chemistry, and Couric and Lauer instantly had it. It was first described as an older sister/younger brother dynamic.

"I said that because it drove her crazy," said Lauer. "It's matured over the last year. When you sit down with someone for 52 weeks and outside of work, too, there have been things that have happened that made me understand Katie more and she's understood me more.

"It's become more of a mature relationship. It's not as much the poke-you-in-the-arm relationship it used to be. It's warmer. The word 'warm' comes up more to me in viewer letters, which is gratifying. It is not as much sarcastic."

The death of Couric's husband is only one of the personal crises the "Today" team has dealt with in the past year.

"Our executive producer, Jeff Zucker, was very ill," Lauer said. "It was a horrible, horrible thing for us. I'll never forget the day he walked into my office and told me he had colon cancer. I was just about to take over. I wanted to cry. I think I felt as bad as he did. Katie's family has had some health problems this year. My dad passed away three months into my run here. He was sick probably from the day I got the job until he died.

"You don't walk into work with things like that going on in your personal life and not let other people around you know what's going on. . . . They were great. We were both there for Jeff, and Jeff and I were both there for Katie. It made it a warmer relationship."

Of course, morning audiences want to see people who enjoy each other's company, and it helps if it isn't a charade. Before his 40th birthday in December, Lauer was reminded of how devoted the "Today" audience can be.

"There is a sense, because we're a morning show, that we're part of the viewers' family," Lauer said. "They say it all the time. I'm always amazed. . . . Before we ever mentioned my 40th birthday coming up, I was already getting birthday cards from people. They remembered from a year or two ago when they brought a cake out."

He concedes that there are boundaries to how far his personal life will be exploited, such as "if we did a segment on my dating life. Which isn't going to happen.

"One of the nice things about sharing something of yourself with the viewers is, it brings home all those segments we do on a weekly basis of family problems and midlife problems. And when the viewer understands you go through the same problems and have the same thoughts, then those subjects are more relevant than if you just sit there debriefing an expert."

With failures in his past, Lauer is a bit of an expert on worrying. He isn't enjoying his success -- and all those weekly ratings records -- as much as he could be.

"When someone makes you a part of the most storied show on television, you have to kind of pinch yourself," said Lauer. "The only problem I've had to deal with over the last four or five years is that it's very difficult for me to get comfortable. . . . I don't find it very easy to relax with any element of success. . . . I wish I could stop and enjoy this a little bit more. But I do tend to have a bit of the look-over-my-shoulder mentality, which maybe makes it not quite as enjoyable."

It's a foolish worry, because now Matt Lauer is carrying around a very strong odor of success.

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