By Ruffin Prevost
CODY, WYO. — As many as 3.5 million visitors typically pass through Yellowstone National Park over the course of a busy year. On Tuesday morning, more than 5 million “Today” show viewers are expected to enjoy the sights and sounds of Yellowstone with their morning coffee.
All five anchors of the NBC show will be broadcasting from Old Faithful as “Today” goes on the road before Memorial Day to visit five great American summer vacation destinations in five days.
The trip kicks off Monday in Hawaii, before continuing to Yellowstone, Chicago, Orlando, Fla., and wrapping up Friday at the Jersey Shore.
“They are all places people will want to go this summer, and they are all iconic, each with their own personality,” “Today” executive producer Don Nash said by telephone Thursday.
Show anchors Matt Lauer, Savannah Guthrie, Al Roker, Natalie Morales and Willie Geist will all broadcast together from each of the five locations.
“We’ve never taken all five anchors on a trip this ambitious before,” Nash said. “I know they’re all excited, and the crews are excited.”
Those crews are made up of a small army of about 70 technical, artistic and support personnel required to pull off a live 3-hour broadcast from one of the most remote spots in the country.
Nash said he’s hoping for an eruption of Old Faithful near the start of the broadcast, and expects at least two eruptions from the reliable geyser over the course of the show. Crews have also been working on segments specific to Yellowstone, including ones on grizzly bears, wolves, wilderness survival and federal budget cuts known as the sequester.
One segment will look at the effects expected this summer as a result of the sequester on Yellowstone and other national parks, Nash said.
Rick Hoeninghausen, vice president for sales and marketing at Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the park’s primary lodging and activities concessioner, said the show was also planning a cooking segment featuring staff from the Snake River Grill in Jackson, Wyo., as well as a piece featuring Boy Scouts from Gardiner, Mont.
A ‘big deal’
Hoeninghausen has been working with staffers from “Today” to coordinate lodging, meals, equipment staging and other logistics around Old Faithful. The production will occupy nearly two dozen hotel rooms at Old Faithful, plus more in West Yellowstone, and will use satellite trucks, lights, generators and other equipment, he said.
“There’s going to be a lot of stuff,” he said. “This is a big deal.”
Crews are expected to begin staging equipment over the weekend and will set up lights and sets Monday, working overnight to be able to broadcast live at 5 a.m. Mountain Time on Tuesday, he said.
The main anchor desk will be located between the Old Faithful Visitor Center and the geyser itself. Another live broadcast spot will be outside near a stand of trees, with additional broadcast points in the Old Faithful Inn on the second floor balcony overlooking the lobby, and on the second-floor deck, Hoeninghausen said.
Curious Yellowstone fans may be able to watch workers as they set up by keeping an eye on the Old Faithful webcam, he said.
Also watching over the “Today” show production will be National Park Service staff members with Yellowstone’s permitting and public affairs offices, said park spokesman Al Nash.
“When it comes to any kind of a production, whether it’s a one- or two-person news crew that comes in locally or something the size of a three-hour live television broadcast, our basic focus is the same,” Nash said. “Our job is always to protect what is special about Yellowstone and minimize any impact to visitors.”
He said the “Today” crews have been “great to deal with” because they have experience broadcasting from remote locations and “understand our need to protect the place and to minimize the show’s impact to visitors.”
Nash said the broadcast is a rare chance to reach millions of viewers who will learn about key Yellowstone topics directly from park staffers, including grizzly bear biologist Kerry Gunther, Yellowstone Wolf Project leader Doug Smith and geologist Hank Heasler.
Federal laws require the Park Service to charge a fee for commercial productions shot in Yellowstone, Nash said. While news agencies covering breaking events are typically exempt from permitting and fees, NBC will be assessed a fee because of the scope of the production and the demands on staff time, he said.
“But we certainly don’t treat this NBC news-produced program like we would a Hollywood film,” he said.
Whatever the fees turn out to be, NBC probably has room in the show’s budget.
According to New York Times media reporter Brian Stetler’s book “Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV,” the “Today” show generates an estimated $500 million in annual revenue for NBC, allowing the network to pay Matt Lauer a reported $25 million per year. Stetler writes that “Today” is the most lucrative property at NBC News, and effectively subsidizes programs like “Meet the Press” and “NBC Nightly News.”
Executive producer Don Nash took one of his first trips as a “Today” producer in 1995, when Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric hosted from Old Faithful. It was around that time that “Today” began an incredible streak of more than 16 years atop the morning show ratings.
But Nash, the producer, said the trip to Yellowstone wasn’t a ratings stunt, despite “Today”finally breaking its streak last year and falling behind “Good Morning America” after the tumultuous firing of co-host Ann Curry.
Perhaps not coincidental, though, is the timing of the Nielsen ratings sweeps period—a month-long interval that measures ratings for key demographics, and that can mean millions for a lucrative show like “Today.” The May sweeps period ends Wednesday, one day after “Today’s” broadcast from Yellowstone.
The production schedule won’t leave much time for sightseeing, as crews will rush after the broadcast wraps to pack up and fly off to Chicago, but Nash said he is still looking forward to seeing Yellowstone again.
“That park is one of my favorite places in the world,” he said.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].