NEW YORK (TNS) — Star anchor Matt Lauer was fired from NBC's "Today" show Wednesday, the latest high-profile figure to lose his job as part of a widening sexual harassment scandal that has rocked the entertainment and media industries.
NBC said Lauer was ousted after it received a complaint about the co-anchor concerning "inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace."
The move represented a startling and swift action by NBC to oust one of its most popular TV personalities who has been a familiar presence on the network for two decades. "Today" has been a lucrative franchise for NBC and a top-rated show in the fiercely competitive morning TV landscape.
The announcement was read at the top of "Today" by Lauer's on-air partners Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb, both of whom appeared shaken by the news they learned only moments earlier.
The statement from NBC News Chairman Andy Lack said: "On Monday night, we received a detailed complaint from a colleague about inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace by Matt Lauer. It represented, after serious review, a clear violation of our company's standards. As a result, we've decided to terminate his employment. While it is the first complaint about his behavior in the over 20 years he's been at NBC News, we were also presented with reason to believe this may not have been an isolated incident."
In a meeting with staff, Lack said Lauer engaged in inappropriate behavior with a female NBC employee in 2014, including while "Today" was broadcasting from Sochi, Russia, to cover the Winter Olympics, according to a person briefed on the meeting who was not authorized to comment publicly.
Ari Wilkenfeld, the attorney representing the woman who brought the accusation, said in a statement that he and his client met with NBC's human resources and legal departments Monday night to discuss the matter.
"Our impression at this point is that NBC acted quickly, as all companies should, when confronted with credible allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace," Wilkenfeld said. "While I am encouraged by NBC's response to date, I am in awe of the courage my client showed to be the first to raise a complaint and to do so without making any demands other than the company do the right thing."
An NBC News spokesperson said two more accusers have come forward with harassment complaints about Lauer since the news broke Wednesday morning. The company said current NBC News management was not aware of any complaints about Lauer's conduct before the employee who came forward Monday night.
On Wednesday afternoon, Variety published allegations by three unnamed women who accused Lauer of sexual harassment. Variety said the women's accounts were corroborated by friends or colleagues. The women declined to be named out of fear of professional repercussions.
In one case, according to the report, Lauer dropped his pants and showed a female staffer his penis after calling her to his office. In another case, he gave a colleague a sex toy and included a note about how he wanted to use it on her, the report said.
The women, as well as other current and former staffers interviewed by Variety, described crass and philandering behavior, including some with willing participants. Some staffers described a button under Lauer's desk that allowed him to lock his door from the inside for additional privacy.
"There were a lot of consensual relationships, but that's still a problem because of the power he held," a former producer told Variety. "He couldn't sleep around town with celebrities or on the road with random people, because he's Matt Lauer and he's married. So he'd have to do it within his stable, where he exerted power, and he knew people wouldn't ever complain."
A spokesperson for Lauer at public relations firm Rubenstein Associates said Lauer did not have any comment.
Lauer, 59, is the second morning news anchor to be fired over allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior this month. Last week, Charlie Rose was dismissed from his co-host job at "CBS This Morning" after a report that eight women complained about his behavior at his long-running nightly talk show at PBS, which has now been dropped.
Allegations of sexual harassment and other sexual misconduct have also taken down the careers of several other prominent figures in media, including Fox News anchor Bill O'Reilly, NBC News political analyst Mark Halperin, NPR executive Michael Oreskes and chief news editor David Sweeney.
On Wednesday, Garrison Keillor, the former host of "A Prairie Home Companion," said he has been fired by Minnesota Public Radio over allegations of improper behavior.
NBC News this month also fired its senior vice president for booking, Matt Zimmerman, after learning about "inappropriate conduct" with female employees.
"This shows that companies that have high-profile stars will no longer be able to turn a blind eye when women bring credible allegations forward," said Debra Katz, a founding partner of the Washington-based law firm Katz, Marshall & Banks LLP, who has represented victims in sexual harassment cases.
For TV viewers, the harassment allegations against Lauer and other network anchors are doubly shocking because they are being made against personalities we have come to trust every day, said Bernice Ledbetter, a professor at Pepperdine's Graziadio School of Business and Management.
"We know these men, we know these faces," Ledbetter said. "What we're seeing is a phenomenon where the heads of these news organizations are sending a message of zero tolerance for behavior that crosses the line."
Lauer's ouster is likely to have a seismic impact on "Today," one of the most successful morning TV shows in the business and a cash cow for NBC.
He has been co-anchor of "Today" since 1997 after first joining the show as a news reader in 1994. He is the highest-paid anchor in television news, with an annual salary of more than $20 million. He has been the longest-running host on the program, which NBC launched in January 1952.
"Today" runs second to ABC's "Good Morning America" in the ratings, but it's by far the top revenue earner in network morning TV, taking in nearly $500 million annually.
While Lauer has weathered a number of controversies over his career on "Today," he remained popular with viewers. Internal surveys done by NBC often showed that he was a key reason for their choosing "Today" in the morning.
In light of the recent sexual harassment allegations against figures in the media and entertainment business, there had been talk in the TV industry that a number of news organizations were looking into Lauer's behavior.
Lauer's departure will alter the make-up of the "Today" on-air family, which matters to the viewers who look for consistency and comfort in the morning programs they watch. Lauer's co-anchors, who by all accounts had a good relationship with him, were grim when reporting the story at the top of the program on Wednesday.
"We are devastated," Guthrie said after reading the statement. "We are still processing all of this and I will tell you right now we do not know right now more than what I just shared with you. ... For the moment all we can say is that we are heartbroken. I'm heartbroken for Matt. He is my dear, dear friend and my partner and he is beloved by many, many people here, and I am heartbroken for the brave colleague who came forward to tell her story and any other women who have their stories to tell."
Times staff writers Meg James and David Ng contributed to this report.