Matt Lauer, who was fired Wednesday morning as anchor of Today after nearly two decades with the program over an allegation of inappropriate sexual behavior, formerly worked in Philadelphia as a host of the ill-fated Channel 10 program Live! On City Line.
Listed as an entertainment talk show, City Line debuted in September 1987, teaming Lauer, then 29, with Sheela Allen-Stephens, who died last year. According to an Inquirer article about the show’s premiere, City Line served as a “vehicle for showbiz scuttlebutt, fashion pieces, trend stories, celebrity interviews, and topical discussion.” It aired in the late afternoon.
Celebrity interview subjects included Phyllis Diller, Dom DeLuise, and Robin Leach. As Lauer told the Inquirer in 1987, the program was “heavily into dirt” and “if it’s dirty … we’ll do it.”
“The guests are all adults who consented to be on the show, so they know what they’re in for,” Lauer said.
That muckraking approach didn’t help the show’s ratings, however, and it was ill-received almost from the start. As former Inquirer TV critic Ken Tucker wrote, Live! On City Line featured “too many teeth gleaming” as Lauer and Allen-Stephens “smile, smile, smile” to “persuade us that they are having the time of their lives.”
Nielsen ratings were a bit of a death knell for the program:
Lauer, however, “certainly seems smart, funny and promising,” Tucker wrote.
Despite that promise, Channel 10 — at the time owned and operated by CBS; it’s now NBC10 — decided by Nov. 18, 1987, to retool the program, planning to move it to the morning and change the format. Allen-Stephens returned to reporting during the regular newscast, according to the Inquirer, and Lauer was asked to stay on as solo host.
But that same week, City Line was canceled. It lasted about two months on the air.
“It was too quick, but it was fun,” Lauer told the Inquirer after the cancellation. “I have no bitterness. The station was very nice about it. They offered me a morning show, but that’s not why I came here. Management is as disappointed with what happened as we were.”
Despite the show’s failure, Lauer called it a good experience and said his time there made him a better interviewer. He also said he didn’t have a chance to get to know Philadelphia in such short a time.
He wasn’t able to shake the bad luck of cancellation after leaving Philly; he ran into a similar situation at WNEV-TV in Boston in 1988. He had landed a job there hosting Talk of the Town, a program similar to City Line. It also was canceled after a short run.
“I feel like I’ve got a dark cloud over my head,” Lauer, then 30, told the Inquirer in 1988. “This one’s much more disappointing than Live! on City Line. This show was really working, but the station said it’s in a budget crisis.”
Lauer said he hoped to work for a network seriously pursuing local news. He ended up at WNBC-TV in New York by 1992, leading him to appear in nationally broadcast pieces for NBC. Rob Feldman, a former Channel 10 producer, hired Lauer in New York. “Matt’s work here in Philadelphia definitely put him on my radar as a talent. I thought he was incredibly comfortable in his own skin and on-camera. I also thought that he had another rare trait — which may sound ironic now — but he was one of those on-air people who was both appealing to women and unthreatening to men. So when I got to New York and learned he was available, I didn’t hesitate to reach out to him and hire him to do some freelance work for Evening Magazine,” Feldman said.
He started on Today as a fill-in anchor for Bryant Gumbel, and was officially named a coanchor in January 1997.
But his time with Today appears to have ended.
Lauer was a 2009 Excellence Honoree at the Temple University Klein College of Media and Communication. Lew Klein, the college’s namesake, helped Lauer establish his career and served as a mentor, but had no comment about the allegations.
Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article referred to “Live! On City Line” as an NBC10 show. At that time, WCAU was still owned and operated by CBS.