NEW YORK — The "Today" show's Hoda Kotb believes the program's audience bonded with her and co-host Savannah Guthrie over how they dealt with Matt Lauer's firing last November on sexual misconduct charges.
They didn't pretend there was nothing wrong.
"The people who watch us have been watching for a long, long time," Kotb said. "When there's something up in a family, they're watching it and feeling it, too. It's almost like you don't want mom and dad to say, 'everything's fine, there's nothing to see here.' You want someone to tell you that something is wrong and we're making our way through."
The NBC News program weathered the storm better than expected. "Today" slipped past ABC's "Good Morning America" into first place in the ratings for nearly two months, before "GMA" recovered the past two weeks. Now "Today" will have the spotlight again when the show travels to South Korea for the Winter Olympics.
Kotb subbed for Lauer on a couple of hours' notice when he was fired and never left.
"It felt right," Kotb said. "It's like you go out on a date with someone and you click and you say, 'do you want to do this again?' And you're like, 'can we have breakfast every day?' You just feel like something is right and that's the way it was for me."
Guthrie stays away from theories about why the show has been on an upswing. She joined "Today" when it was reeling from Ann Curry's ouster and took from that a lesson to get through crises by keeping your head down and doing the work.
"I really don't think about (the ratings)," she said, "because if I did it would drive me crazy."
Viewers are watching an evolving friendship and evolving chemistry, said Libby Leist, the show's new executive producer. "You can't fake that," she said.
With the trio, a program that is watched primarily by women now has them in leadership positions. It's the first time the show has not had a male co-host. Although the timing may seem fortuitous for NBC with the run of stories about men behaving badly, Guthrie said it wasn't planned that way.
"As much as it's exciting to be the first female team on the 'Today' show, that was secondary to the fact that it worked," she said. "And we love doing the show together. We're having a great time."
Guthrie said she's still processing what happened with Lauer, who was fired for an inappropriate relationship with another NBC News staffer. She said she values her relationship with Lauer, but keeps her head and heart open to the truth.
"It's complicated," she said. "I'm just trying to navigate it as best I can, with compassion and caring for everybody involved. It's not up to me to be the ultimate arbiter of this."
David Bauder, The Associated Press