Book review: 'Top of the Morning' certainly not an eye-opener


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Dishy accounts of behind-the-scenes turmoil in the television industry can be a fun read and there are moments when "Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV" rises to the occasion. But this recent history of the falling fortunes of NBC's "Today" and the ratings ascendency of ABC's "Good Morning America" by New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter suffers from the author's strained attempts to entertain and today's general abundance of media coverage.


"TOP OF THE MORNING: INSIDE THE CUTTHROAT WORLD OF MORNING TV"

By Brian Stelter
Grand Central Publishing ($28).


Any devoted media follower was aware of much of what's contained in "Top of the Morning" and even some of the previously unreported specifics have come out in coverage of the book, which may make "Top of the Morning" feel like a rerun for those who dive into it.

Back in 1995 when New York Times reporter Bill Carter wrote "The Late Shift" -- about late-night TV hosts Jay Leno and David Letterman -- there was significantly less coverage of the television business. Today, every drip and drab about TV and those on TV gets dissected on an array of media-centric websites. This makes scoops for after-the-fact books more difficult to come by.

To be sure, Mr. Stelter has found some in "Top of the Morning," most notably the political maneuverings of network executives, like the exec who coined the code name "Operation Bambi" for the plot to expel Ann Curry from "Today."

The book is a breezy, entertaining snapshot of a particular moment in the morning news battle for ratings supremacy. But "Top of the Morning" reads more like a dispatch from someone working at TMZ than a New York Times reporter.

There's a reference to morning TV conventions that have been in place for "sixty friggin' years now," a reference to rumors of one morning anchor's extramarital affairs and the description of "Today" executive producer Jim Bell as "both doctor and witch doctor, fixing what was wrong, but sometimes dabbling in the dark TV arts, or at least looking the other way when his valued underlings did."

It's necessary to entertain readers but Mr. Stelter tries a little too hard, slathering on the gossipy purple prose with too heavy a hand. In a way this approach insulates Mr. Stelter from criticism that much of the book's sourcing is anonymous; "Top of the Morning" reads like a book-length tabloid report more than an exercise in serious reporting.

Media-obsessed readers may not come away from "Top of the Morning" learning much about "the cutthroat world of morning TV," but for viewers with only a glancing familiarity with the often cruel TV news business, "Top of the Morning" offers a decent crash course.

Former "Good Morning America" host Joan Lunden acknowledges she did not vacate her spot on the "GMA" couch willingly when she left the program in 1997. "Let's just say I wanted to leave," she told her ABC bosses when it became clear they wanted her to go. "I'd rather leave with dignity; I don't want to go to war with you guys; and it certainly behooves you guys not to make it look like you're replacing me with a 30-year-old look-alike of me."

Some media coverage of "Top of the Morning" has accused Mr. Stelter of bias toward ABC in the "GMA"-"Today" feud but it's a logical David-and-Goliath narrative. "Today" was the top dog for 16 years and "GMA" was the underdog; "Today" got complacent and stopped trying as hard and "GMA" finally found the right cast mix, and that, coupled with the failings of "Today," allowed "GMA" to succeed.

"Top of the Morning" offers some historical context for the current state of morning TV news programs, particularly with regard to the "GMA"-"Today" rivalry, but the book skims over CBS's efforts through the years. Given CBS's also-ran status, this makes sense from a book-sales perspective but it prevents "Top of the Morning" from taking a broader look at the morning TV phenomenon.

Instead, "Top of the Morning" spends many of its pages on the disaster that was Ann Curry's brief tenure as "Today" host, including her hard-to-watch last day in June 2012 when she cried on the air. While viewers largely blame Matt Lauer for having a role in her ouster and the rating woes of "Today," "Top of the Morning" provides an alternate perspective that fans of Ms. Curry will no doubt find galling: "Ann was the executioner," says one anonymous insider about her farewell and its impact on NBC's morning ratings, "and the victim was the 'Today' show.' "

That viewpoint alone may be enough to convince "Top of the Morning" readers that any pretense of on-air TV "families" takes second place to the hard-nosed business realities of broadcast news.

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TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.


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