Matt Lauer's abrupt ouster as host of NBC's lucrative Today show leaves a second empty chair at a morning show since last week, following Charlie Rose's exit from CBS, because of allegations of sexual harassment or assault.
But who can replace Lauer, 59, the biggest star of morning television, whose nearly 21-year run anchoring Today ended abruptly Wednesday?
The era of a big-name, big-bucks star, making (as Lauer did) $25 million a year, may be over.
Matt Lauer statement after firing: 'There are no words to express my sorrow'
"The position of the famous-name celebrity journalist who's at the top of the pyramid and making an enormous amount of money: Will that be replicated?" asks a skeptical Andrew Tyndall, a longtime network-news analyst who runs the Tyndall Report. "Or will the show move to a team format, where it won't have to live or die depending on the behavior of the host?"
NBC fired Lauer after receiving what NBC News chairman Andy Lack called a "detailed complaint" about "inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace." He said he believes it wasn't an isolated incident, and Variety on Wednesday reported that Lauer, during his years at Today, exposed himself and sent sex toys to female staffers with suggestions of how he'd use them.
While Hoda Kotb was hastily called in as Lauer's temporary substitute, speculation turned to NBC's succession plans.
Tyndall suggests two candidates: Willie Geist, a longtime Lauer fill-in and current Sunday Today and MSNBC host; and Megyn Kelly, a much-ballyhooed import from Fox News who has hosted a companion series at 9 a.m. ET/PT since September, with underwhelming results. Other names floated range from Brian Williams, the former NBC Nightly News anchor now at MSNBC; to Weekend Today anchor Craig Melvin; Today's Carson Daly; Carl Quintanilla, a CNBC business anchor; and Kotb.
Any of them would be teamed with Lauer's co-host Savannah Guthrie, who told viewers she was "heartbroken" at the news. Guthrie has been Lauer's co-anchor since 2012, after the forced exit of Ann Curry, which many blamed on him.
CBS hasn't disclosed plans to replace Rose, 75, who had co-anchored CBS This Morning with Gayle King since 2012 but was fired Nov. 21 after accusations he'd harassed staffers. PBS also canceled his talk show.
Former CBS News chief Andrew Heyward, now a visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, predicts "a re-evaulation of what a television news star is," and says the Lauer and Rose scandals reflect "a very disturbing aspect of a changing of the guard" that may usher in a new era of stars minted in digital media. "The role of television anchor has been diminishing for decades," he says, and "this sort of development, while a particularly disturbing and upsetting aspect of the phenomenon, only contributes to that decline."
Adds Jonathan Klein, a former CNN chief: "Snapchat and YouTube stars command more attention from Millennials and Generation Z than anyone on network news shows."
The absence of obvious high-profile male successors simply illustrates the trend. CBS tapped a relative unknown, correspondent Jeff Glor, to helm its perpetually third-ranked evening newscast, starting next week.
The question, Tyndall says, is whether Guthrie would be able to lead Today, which has ranked behind ABC's Good Morning America (the gap was 116,000 viewers last month, and 56,000 last week) but is clinging to a lead among younger viewers. And whether a male co-anchor, traditionally thought to appeal to morning shows' largely female audience, is necessary or even desirable amid the toxic climate. But Today rakes in nearly $500 million a year in ad revenue, and is a cash cow that NBC desperately needs to protect.
While Katie Couric was Today's star anchor during Lauer's first decade on the show, Lauer took a front seat after her departure, and protected his status, Tyndall says, by "making sure the bench was thin underneath him" for male co-hosts, "which gave him more leverage in negotiating" an ever-higher salary. (Most of Today's recent hires have been women.)
That points out a "weakness of NBC management," Tyndall says, but also "shows the clout he had."