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Benched Bush Awaits ‘Today’ Fate

Billy Bush has a tough fight ahead of him to get his Today post back and win back viewers, say multiple news business insiders. Bush was suspended as host in the 9 a.m. hour for his role in a leaked video involving Donald Trump during Bush’s time at Access Hollywood over a decade ago. Trump spewed misogynistic remarks into a microphone he did not realize was live, while Bush plays along with the lewd banter.

Today’s largely female audience, coupled with Bush’s short full-time tenure at the show, will make it difficult, but not impossible, for NBC News to bring him back. In the meantime, the network’s news division leaders are taking a moment to ponder this fast-moving story.

“It seems to me NBC is following very closely the playbook it had with Brian Williams,” said Dave Smith, CEO at media consultancy SmithGeiger. “I think it’s extremely wise—before you know the facts and the fallout, the Today brand is at stake, so take a pause. Trying to make a long-term decision in the midst of that environment is almost impossible.”

Smith notes that Bush, a cousin of President George W. Bush’s, is a high-scoring talent among American viewers. He landed what was said to be a dream job in Today and departed NBCUniversal’s Access Hollywood, where he spent 15 years, and Access Hollywood Live, where he spent six, for Today during the Summer Olympics. At the time of Bush’s appointment, Noah Oppenheim, Today executive producer, said of him: “He brings boundless energy, a great interviewing style and a deep knowledge of pop culture.”

It’s been a somewhat bumpy start for Bush, who essentially swapped roles with Natalie Morales. He was scolded on air by co-host Al Roker after defending disgraced Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte. David Smith notes that the shift from entertainment to news does not happen overnight, or without bumps in the road, though Bush had contributed to Today for years.

Morning shows are giant profit centers for their networks, and Today brings 60-plus years of history to the segment. Morning news viewership dropped 2% in 2015, according to a study from Pew Research, yet the three network shows booked $809 million in revenue—one hundred million more than 2014.   

Promptly after the release of the Trump-Bush video Oct. 7, Bush issued a statement expressing his contrition: “Obviously I’m embarrassed and ashamed. It’s no excuse, but this happened 11 years ago—I was younger, less mature, and acted foolishly in playing along.”

News insiders figured Bush would have a chance to address the incident on the program Oct. 10 but had already been suspended by then. It was mentioned briefly in the Monday broadcast. "Pending further review of the matter, NBC News has suspended Billy Bush, the host of Today's third hour, for his role in that conversation with Donald Trump,” said Savannah Guthrie.

Bush grew up in Manhattan and got his start in radio, hosting a show in Washington before beginning on television at WNBC New York. He has hosted the Miss Universe pageant, which was once owned by Trump, multiple times.

Bush brought an easy rapport with celebrities to Today. In a 2002 New York Times profile, he described his skill set thusly: ''I bang around. Hanging around with people, that's my thing.''

NBC News did not comment on Bush’s fate beyond his suspension. Insiders say the network news braintrust is likely conducting and examining viewer research regarding Bush before making its next move.

While it involves a different set of circumstances, multiple TV news veterans point to the fate of Brian Williams, who was removed from his Nightly News position in 2015 following various fabrications he spun on the air. Williams served a six-month suspension before resurfacing at MSNBC; he now hosts a nightly program there.

Williams enjoyed a significantly higher profile than Bush. He also had considerable goodwill in the bank after 22 years at NBC News—something that Bush cannot boast of.

Whether the new Today hire stays or goes, SmithGeiger principal Smith says NBC News is wise to think this one through. “Take a pause and evaluate the situation,” he says. “Make the proper decision when the smoke clears.”

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.