"Matt Lauer is the best in the business," said Alex Wallace, NBC News executive who oversees the "Today" show. "We want him in the 'Today' show anchor chair for many years to come."
Wallace spoke after reports of a meeting with Cooper first appeared in Deadline Hollywood. The report was confirmed to The Associated Press by a source who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions were private and was not authorized to speak to the media.
The longtime king of morning television, "Today" has fallen behind ABC's "Good Morning America" in the ratings over the past year, particularly since the messy ouster of Ann Curry as Lauer's co-anchor last summer. There has been a flurry of stories recently retracing that decision. Lauer has said he urged the network to move more slowly with its planned changes, but a New York magazine cover story this week suggested he didn't like Curry and did little to help her.
Whatever happened, it's clear that many "Today" viewers who did not like what happened to Curry have taken their anger out on Lauer.
In 2012, Lauer's positive "Q'' score was 23 - meaning 23 percent of people who knew him considered Lauer one of their favorite broadcasters, according to Marketing Evaluations Inc., a company that measures public sentiment toward well-known personalities. Last summer that score dropped to 14 and this month stands at 9, the company said. For the first time, George Stephanopoulos of "Good Morning America" has surpassed him. Among women, who make up the bulk of morning show audiences, Stephanopoulos is nearly twice as popular as Lauer and his "GMA" partner, Robin Roberts, is nearly three times as popular, the company said.
Where in the world is Matt Lauer? Trapped in a vortex of bad vibes with no escape in sight.
The approach to Cooper could mean that NBC has concluded that the time is right to actively work on replacing Lauer. Or not: his contract expires at the end of 2014 and it is widely assumed that Lauer will be ready then to move on from a job he's held since 1997. Under those circumstances, a forward-looking management team would be expected to be looking at alternatives.
"NBC News has many exploratory talks with talent inside and outside of the network, but to read anything specific into that is presumptuous," said an NBC News executive who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not allowed to discuss personnel moves.
Lauer has talked about resetting "Today" to be more serious, with less emphasis on crime stories. NBC was criticized this week by advocates for sexual abuse victims because "Today" aired excerpts of an interview that filmmaker John Ziegler had with convicted Penn State molester Jerry Sandusky; Lauer interviewed Ziegler on the air.
Potential internal replacements for Lauer could include Willie Geist, who co-hosts the third hour of "Today" in addition to work on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," and "Meet the Press" anchor David Gregory. Both have subbed for Lauer when he was absent.
The question for many in the television industry is whether the "Today" show can hope to change its fortunes with Lauer at the helm. "Today" hasn't beaten "Good Morning America" for any week in the ratings since the Olympics last summer and with Roberts' return after an illness in February, the gap between the two shows hit its widest. NBC says preliminary numbers show the two shows last week were as close as they've been since December and that "Today" frequently wins among youthful news viewers.
"This awful, false narrative campaign against Matt has certainly made him vulnerable, but Matt is still, in my opinion, the best anchor who has ever occupied that chair," said Shelley Ross, former executive producer at "Good Morning America" and "The Early Show" at CBS, where she competed against Lauer. She said she believed NBC's competitors were helping to keep negative stories about Lauer alive.
NBC was right to replace Curry but handled it badly, she said.
The cyclical nature of television is also likely hurting Lauer. It's a rare personality that stays beloved forever. Ross and others in the industry believe that Lauer's latest contract, which reportedly pays him $25 million a year, drove a wedge between the anchor and viewers who no longer view him as a regular guy.
Paul Friedman, a former news executive at ABC and CBS, also said Lauer is the best he's seen in his role. But right now, ABC's "Good Morning America" is a broadcast that provides viewers with information from personalities who appear to be enjoying what they're doing.
"I don't think the fuss in the press is what matters to viewers," said Friedman, who teaches journalism at Connecticut's Quinnipiac University. "What matters is what is seen on the air, and right now what's on the air is a cast that doesn't appear to enjoy themselves and what they're doing - as they do at 'Good Morning America.'"