Karl Stefanovic: The comeback kid who brought the Today show back to life

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·Contributor
·6-min read
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  • Karl Stefanovic
    Australian news anchor
  • Lisa Wilkinson
    Australian journalist and television presenter

For more than 10 years, Karl Stefanovic was the golden boy of Channel Nine. 

The much-loved presenter fronted Today, hosted A Current Affair and was also a reporter for 60 Minutes

All that changed in 2016 as the sheen began to rub off. 

Karl Stefanovic and Lisa Wilkinson presenting None Network's Today show in 2013
Karl Stefanovic and Lisa Wilkinson presenting Today in 2013. Photo: Nine Network

The first controversy was when he made light of a reporter in Rio being mugged by, in her words, 'a group of transvestites'. 

Karl repeatedly joked about "trannies" in a less-than-sensitive way, rightly offending the LGBTQI community.

Karl was quick to apologise for his careless and inappropriate blunder. 

"As we all know I can be a complete tool. Yesterday, I was worse, an ignorant tool," he said on-air. 

"I used a word which I will now say for the last time ever. By using the word 'tranny', I offended an awful lot of beautiful and sensitive people. 

"I honestly didn’t know the negative and deeply hurtful impact that word has, not only on members of the LGBTQI community, but on their family and their friends," he added.

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His genuine heartfelt apology and owning what he'd done went a long way.

However, just two months later, when he announced his separation from his wife of 21 years, fellow journalist Cassandra Thorburn, fans were less forgiving.

TV personality Karl Stefanovic and his wife Cassandra Thorburn arrive on the red carpet ahead of the 2011 Logie Awards
Karl Stefanovic was married to wife Cassandra Thorburn for 21 years before separating in 2016. Photo: Getty Images

Cassandra had given up her promising career to support Karl, something he acknowledged earlier in his career.

"There's no question that Cass is a crucial ingredient in Karl's success," fellow presenter Ben Fordham had said.

When it was rumoured Karl had started seeing shoe designer Jasmine Yarbrough, just months after he announced his separation, fans turned on the popular presenter.

The backlash surprised Karl. 

Karl and Jasmine Stefanovic attend the annual Gold Dinner at Fox Studios on May 30, 2019
Karl Stefanovic with current wife Jasmine. Photo: Getty Images

"Personally, it was a bit hard because I thought a lot of people do go through relationship difficulties and unfortunately, for me, that was in a very public way, but that's what happens when you're a public person," Karl revealed to 3AW's Neil Mitchell.

"I got divorced, I did find love again, and I'm sorry if people are offended by that, but it's made me really happy."

With ratings suffering, in October 2017, Karl's popularity took a further hit when co-host Lisa Wilkinson revealed she was leaving the show due to pay disparity between herself and Karl.

It was also an end to their friendship.

"We had fallen out on the issue of the massive gender pay gap I’d been experiencing for years sitting next to Karl – despite together, taking the show to number one in the extremely lucrative breakfast TV ratings," Lisa wrote in her biography It Wasn't Meant To Be Like This.

The scrutiny after his first marriage breakdown, his new relationship with now-wife Jasmine and the controversy surrounding Lisa's departure took its toll on Karl – personally and reputationally.

 Karl Stefanovic and co-host Georgie Gardner presenting the Today show on 7 August 2018.
After Lisa left the show, Karl co-hosted with Georgie Gardner. Photo: Nine Network

Karl bid farewell from Today in 2018, soon after he and Jasmine wed.

"Towards the end of last year, I was cooked. It had taken its toll, a lot of the [media] attention – all the unwarranted attention, I thought, and you can’t control any of that," he said on Andy Lee’s The Hundred.

"I’m not going to complain too much about that, but what it meant was that in a work capacity I don’t believe for a second I was at my best. 

"I think I was struggling towards the end of last year."

However, new hosts Georgie Gardner and Deborah Knight struggled to regain viewers and Today's ratings hit an all-time low.

Career reborn in flames

Karl quietly returned in January 2020 to co-host with Allison Langdon in the midst of Australia's bushfire crisis. 

"We came in and the focus was the story – as opposed to us and our relationship," Allison, told TV Week in June this year.

"It was probably the best thing for us to try to cement what we were going to be to the Australian public, which is informative, credible and then, finally, entertaining – the jovial stuff that comes with the mix of breakfast TV," Karl, 46, added.

The current line-up of Today on Nine - Tim Davies, Karl Stefanovic, Allison Langdon, Brooke Boney
The current line-up of Today on Nine - Tim Davies, Karl, Allison Langdon, Alex Cullen and Brooke Boney. Photo: Nine Network

But viewers also liked the lighter moments between the new co-hosts, their on-air chemistry and light-hearted banter.

"Trust is a big thing," Karl said of his relationship with his co-host Ally in the TV Week interview. 

However Karl conceded they still had a long way to catch up with Sunrise in the ratings, and he understood why.

"We've had a lot of changes, and a lot of changes aren't great for a breakfast show," he said. 

"For us, it's about getting our thing right and getting a response from viewers – that's all that matters. 

"If we win, we win, and if we don't, we don't. And I'll be off the show again."

Worth the wait

Finally, after almost two years on air with Ally Langdon, Today beat Sunrise in the September ratings.

"The gap has been narrowing for a while, and while Seven relaxed and dropped their guard, Nine came along and pipped them at the post!" an insider reportedly told Woman's Day.

"No one saw this coming, least of all Nat and Kochie, who thought they were cruising to their fourth year in a row as number one," they added. 

"It's cut-throat at the best of times, but there's a lot at stake, and ratings being this close calls for drastic measures."

And as Allison and Karl were reportedly offered identical $1.8m one-year contacts to continue fronting the show, Nine's confidence in them paid off - the rating win wasn't a one-off! 

The show's upward trajectory continues to threaten Sunrise's dominance as Australia's preferred morning show.

With that, Karl is back in the public's good books and, given the lessons he's learned along the way, this golden boy is hopefully here to stay.

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