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Originally published March 28, 2013 at 5:34 PM | Page modified March 28, 2013 at 7:36 PM

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Early-morning drama at ‘Today’ over leading man Lauer’s future

The show’s longtime co-host gave little sign that his tenure at NBC’s “Today” show is in question, despite a flurry of news articles this week painting him as embattled.

The New York Times

Tonight in Prime Time

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This can’t be happening again. And yet it is: “Today” is deep into another anchor crisis. Only this time it’s the man at the desk, not the woman, who might be pushed out.

To his credit, Matt Lauer on Thursday gave little sign that his tenure at the NBC morning show is in question, despite a flurry of news articles this week painting him as embattled.

He was as polished and suave as ever, although perhaps a little preoccupied. At one point, he stared so intently at co-host Savannah Guthrie that she grew flustered.

“Don’t look at me like that,” she scolded him.

The closest thing to a tell was when Lauer tried to signal to viewers that he had not spent the previous night keening over reports predicting his ouster. “I had a huge smile on my face as I was reading about you last night,” he told a young guest.

Lauer, at the top of his field only a year ago, with a newly signed contract said to be for $25 million a year and no obvious rivals in sight, has found himself under a growing cloud since former co-anchor Ann Curry was clumsily cast aside in June.

Anderson Cooper of CNN and younger colleagues such as Willie Geist, recently recruited from MSNBC to prop up the third hour of “Today,” are being mentioned as possible replacements.

Geist was away Thursday — to appear as a guest on “The Tonight Show” — but other prospects popped up in what looked like running auditions. Ryan Seacrest, sometimes mentioned as a possible co-anchor, made a cameo. So did Carson Daly, who was filling in for Geist.

Networks never seem to absorb lessons of lineup changes gone bad, NBC most of all. A little more than 20 years ago the network replaced Jane Pauley on “Today” with the younger Deborah Norville; that shake-up was so calamitous that it became a founding fiasco of morning television.

Norville’s career never recovered. It took another change for NBC to get it right: Katie Couric arrived in 1991 and helped put “Today” back on top.

Curry’s removal last year was almost as graceless as that of Pauley, and it was a key in driving the show back into the No. 2 slot after “Good Morning America.”

The spotlight is now on Lauer, who came off as the on-air bully in the Curry debacle. He might not have single-handedly shoved Curry off the couch, but he never looked truly comfortable at her side — and sometimes couldn’t resist a dig at her expense.

On her last day he looked more appalled than chagrined as she wept through her farewell and wouldn’t return his hug.

And once a show pulls the curtain back on that tableau of dysfunction, no number of promos showing anchors convulsed with laughter and hugging can erase it.

Lauer is stuck as the cad who made a woman cry, and the very qualities that made him invaluable to “Today” in the first place — confidence, urbanity, a needling sense of humor — may be a problem now.

“Good Morning America” has taken the lead in the ratings by doubling down on ebullient hosts, celebrity news and feel-good features.

For people who prefer more fiber and less sugar in the morning, “CBS This Morning” has become much better, and its ratings have improved a little. Charlie Rose and Gayle King are not exactly A-list anchors, but with the help of Norah O’Donnell, a former White House correspondent, they preside over a talk show that has more news and informed discussion and fewer silly features about shark bites, babies and runaway brides.

CNN, which recently hired Chris Cuomo away from ABC, just announced a revamp of its morning show, pairing Cuomo with a relative newcomer, Kate Bolduan, and that combination has promise.

For years the one immutable figure on “Today” has been its leading man. Now people are wondering where in the world is Matt Lauer’s replacement.

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