It's been a week since Today rebooted its third hour yet again.
After a year-long experiment with former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly in the slot, and the hour formally re-christened Megyn Kelly TODAY, went up in flames when the controversial host blew up her career with some ill-advised comments about blackface costumes on Halloween, the venerated morning show has been left with the unenviable task of rebuilding what had become a major problem area during the disgraced host's tenure.
"Today, as you know, we are starting a new chapter in the third hour of our show," Hoda Kotb said from the show's studio in New York during the first episode since Kelly's departure. "As it evolves, we want you to know that the entire Today family will continue to bring you informative and important stories—just as we always have."
But what might that new chapter look like once it completes its latest evolution? The answer just might lie in how the show handled itself across its first Kelly-free week.
First, a history lesson. Before Kelly took over Today's third hour, the morning show (which expanded from three to four hours a decade earlier) operated a little something like this: The first two hours were what we'll call Today Prime, in that they were what you've come to expect from a Today broadcast for years (news of the day, weather updates, interviews, etc.). The third hour, which over time came to be known as Today's Take, featured more of a topical "host chat" format, with Al Roker and Tamron Hall as hosts, along with national weather updates in both half-hours. And the fourth, originally hosted by Kotb, Ann Curry and Natalie Morales, quickly morphed into Today with Kathie Lee and Hoda, with Kathie Lee Gifford replacing Curry and Morales in early 2008. The hour operated essentially as a standalone talk show, free of news or weather segments or input form earlier hosts, albeit one still filmed in 30 Rock's Studio 1A, the familiar setting of the prior three hours.
When Today's Take was axed to make room for Kelly's endeavor, the action was moved to Studio 6A to accommodate a studio audience and give the network a more direct competitor with Live with Kelly and Ryan. In turn, it effectively killed the natural flow of Today, essentially turning the segmented four-hour program into three separate shows haphazardly lumped under one umbrella. Coupled with Kelly's difficulties over softening her hard-news persona and her penchant for controversial statements, it never seemed like a viable long-term mode of operation.
And now that that prophecy has proven true, NBC News looks to rebuild. And according to Vanity Fair, most insiders seem to think the logical next step is just reverting back to the way things once were in a more permanent fashion. "I think the easy play is to just go back to Al, Dylan [Dreyer], and Sheinelle [Jones]," a source told the publication, noting that the network would save money both in terms of salary and studio costs. "Rather than doing something splashy again, it makes sense to go back to what was there."
And in essence, that's what they've done in their first interim week. On Monday, Kotb was joined by Roker and newly promoted flagship hours (the first and second) news anchor Craig Melvin. On Tuesday and Thursday, it was Roker, Melvin, Jones and Savannah Guthrie. On Friday, Roker and Melvin were joined by correspondents Jenna Bush Hager and Jacob Soboroff—both of whom were present during Kelly's fateful blackface fiasco. And today, Melvin and Bush Hager were joined by Dreyer and correspondent Stephanie Gosk. (Wednesday's episode was the traditional Halloween hubbub with all the hosts all over the place.)
While it's unlikely that the rotating line-up will continue permanently—Guthrie and Kotb, especially, will need to focus their time back on their other responsibilities across the four hours—it does seem clear that when NBC is ready to name a permanent replacement for Kelly, it'll be a known entity from within the Today family. After all, it's what they did when Matt Lauer was ousted only a year ago, with Kotb expanding her role to join Guthire as co-host of the flagship hours. And while there are plenty of faces to choose from, our money's on Bush Hager and Melvin seeing their roles expanded. Call it a hunch.
One rumor that seems highly unlikely? The one floated by Radar about Kelly Clarkson, whose daytime talk show The Kelly Clarkson Show, is slated to premiere in the fall of next year, being thrown into the mix. Stranger things have happened, but we feel pretty confident in ruling that one out.
Whatever happens next, it's clear that NBC is looking for stability in the face of all this recent turmoil. And that can only come from staying in the family. It worked once before. And it'll work again.
Today airs weekdays at 7 a.m. only on NBC.
(E! and NBC are both part of the NBCUniversal family.)