Bryant Gumble plays the field -- Is the "Today" show anchor thinking of leaving NBC for another network?

By A.J. Jacobs
Updated December 09, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

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With the Great TV Newsmagazine Shakeout going on, there’s no doubt that nighttime news shows have had a stormy season. But everything is not sunny in the world of morning news, either. For the last few weeks, the industry has buzzed about an impending, king-size shocker among the get-out-of-bed programs: Bryant Gumbel, the Today show anchor for the last 12 years, just might jump the NBC ship. The Emmy-winning newscaster has been linked to possible deals at Fox, CBS, and ABC. And Gumbel — whose reported three-year, $7 million contract expired last week — has done nothing to quell rumors, telling USA Today, ”I’ll certainly sign something with someone, but whether it’s with NBC, I really don’t know.”

Yet, according to several high-level industry sources, the 46-year-old Gumbel, who declined to comment, may not have as many options as people might think.

There have been numerous reports that Fox execs are eyeing Gumbel to helm a news show modeled after Nightline. But inside sources say that although Gumbel’s name was mentioned in at least two high-level Fox meetings, the suggestion was shot down by none other than the network’s chief Rupert Murdoch, who apparently fretted that Gumbel has too little audience appeal. A spokesman for Fox declined comment.

Not long ago, sources say, there were discussions at CBS about making a run for Gumbel. But in the end, the Tiffany network decided Gumbel was too closely identified with NBC. A CBS spokes woman denies any discussions took place.

A highly placed source says Gumbel’s power agent Ed Hookstratten, known for hardball deal making, allegedly asked ABC News to come up with an offer for his client. ABC came back with a proposal of a post-Nightline show, but that floating balloon was soon popped by affiliates who said the public didn’t care for Gumbel. A spokeswoman for ABC News says they have no knowledge of such an offer.

Considering that Gumbel is one of the sharpest interviewers and most poised anchors in the business, you’d think the networks would be showering him with dinners, fruit baskets, and multimillion-dollar offers. But talent doesn’t necessarily translate to public adoration. ”He’s smart, unflappable and versatile,” says Art Kaminsky, president of Athletes & Artists, an agency that represents news- and sportscasters. But, he adds, ”There’s not a lot of warmth. He’s no John Madden, no Willard Scott.”

His well-publicized controversies haven’t helped his image. Who can forget his battles with David Letterman, his critically unacclaimed performance at the 1988 Olympics, and the 1989 memo in which he lambasted Scott?

But the appearance of being a hot property is key to Gumbel’s hagglings with NBC. ”It’s Business 101,” says consultant Daniel Spelling. ”The more people think you mean it, the stronger your position.”And that position needs to be strong when onlookers believe Matt Lauer, the perma-smiling Today news anchor, could slip into Gumbel’s shoes. Then again, NBC may be reluctant to shake up the show: Gumbel’s pairing with popular Katie Couric has kept Today neck and neck in the ratings with Good Morning America.

In fact, the network is wooing Gumbel. ”I’m talking with him everyday,” says NBC News president Andy Lack. ”We’re working hard to resolve our issues.” Adds Jeff Zucker, Today exec producer, ”Bryant is our most valued treasure, and I fully expect him to be here.”(Additional reporting by Maria Ricapito and Michele Willens)

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