The long, dramatic history of the Today show

Lifestyle Team
·18-min read

Today is an Australian breakfast television program that has been airing on the Nine Network since 1982. During that time the live broadcast, which runs from 5.30 am to 9 am every weekday, has become an essential part of many people’s morning routines, providing news and current events coverage – and a bit of madcap fun thrown in for good measure – over cornflakes and toast.

In its almost-40 year history, the show has had a variety of hosts. It is currently helmed by veteran journalist Karl Stefanovic – who co-hosted for thirteen years before being let go in 2018, only to return a year later – and ex-60 Minutes journalist, Allison Langdon.

Karl Stefanovic and Allison Langdon on the set of Channel Nine's Today show at the 2020 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 20, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia
Karl Stefanovic (pictured with his current co-host Allison Langdon in 2020) was axed from Today in 2018 only to return two years later. Photo: Getty Images.

Broadcast from the Nine Network studios in Willoughby, a suburb on the North Shore of Sydney, New South Wales, the show – which also boasts a spinoff, Today Extra, running directly after – has regularly been embroiled in controversy, both onscreen and off.

Let’s take a closer look at its extraordinary history.

What year did The Today Show start?

Officially launched on June 28, 1982 as The National Today Show, Today is Australia’s longest-running morning breakfast news program. The show’s original hosts were Steve Liebmann and Sue Kellaway, who co-hosted together for four years before Liebmann left to present Nine’s evening news bulletin (he also hosted with Patrice Newell in 1986).

Today was the first breakfast show to be launched in Australia (there have been several since – it currently competes with Sunrise on Seven and ABC’s News Breakfast on the public broadcaster).

As Kellaway said at the show’s 30th-anniversary tribute show, when it first went to air, the program was groundbreaking.

Liz Hayes photographed in Today studio on Channel 9, while George Negus looks on. June 15, 1988.
Liz Hayes in Today studio on Channel 9 with her co-host George Negus on June 15, 1988. Photo: Getty Images.

“It was all completely new,” she said. “Nobody knew how to do it because nobody had done it. We were flying by the seat of our pants a lot of the time.”

At the time it launched, Australia was a very different place. For a start, the price of petrol was just 33.1c per litre! On the agenda that first show? Everything from an interview with then-Treasurer John Howard about proposed tax cuts to a news report from Eric Walters about the space shuttle Columbia’s maiden voyage. Entertainment reporter Joan McGuinness was trying her hand at 80s exercise fad Aerobics, while Robert Penfold was visiting outback Australia, dropping into the original ‘pub with no beer.’ Regular weather updates were provided by Brian Bury, who drew the day’s weather patterns by hand with a marker.

Technology might have moved on (the show’s first stories were shot on film, now they shoot on digital high-definition wide-screen format) but not a great deal has changed when it comes to the show’s – over 38 years, Today has finely balanced serious news reporting with updates on the everyday concerns of all manner of Australians across the country.

The hosts of Channel Nine's 'The Today Show', Steve Liebmann and Tracy Grimshaw, on set, 15 April 2004
Today co-hosts Steve Liebmann and Tracy Grimshaw on set on April 15, 2004. Photo: Getty Images.

Who were the Today show’s early hosts?

In 1987, George Negus replaced Liebmann, holding the reins alongside Liz Hayes (who joined the show in 1986) for four years until Leibmann returned once more in 1990. Current Affair host Tracy Grimshaw stepped in to replace Hayes in 1996, co-hosting for another nine years. In the end, she said it was those killer early-morning starts that got the better of her.

“There would never have been the cavalcade of hosts on this show over the years if it was not for the hours,” she said at the show’s 30th-anniversary show. “Because no-one would ever leave. It’s the only thing that finishes you, I think.”

Grimshaw vacated the chair the same year Liebmann finished up. The veteran presenter decided to take retirement after he suffered a mild heart attack, and Karl Stefanovic was brought in to replace him.

Which leads us to a particularly tumultuous period in the show’s history...

Karl Stefanovic and Jessica Rowe controversy

After Liebmann and Grimshaw finished up on the show, then-US correspondent Karl Stefanovic was summoned home by then-Nine CEO David Gyngell. At the time he believed it was to take up a role on 60 Minutes, but Gyngell had other plans, and Stefanovic was met with news he would actually be replacing Liebmann on Today instead.

“There weren't too many positive ways of looking at it back then,” he told Fairfax of the shock appointment. But he signed on, and in the years that followed, the Today show went through a period of considerable upheaval as a revolving door of female co-hosts were trialled alongside Stefanovic.

The most famous of these was Jessica Rowe, who joined the show at the beginning of 2006 after leaving her plum job as newsreader at Channel Ten. It was a controversial appointment, not least because Network Ten pursued legal action over Rowe's defection, citing a clause within her contract that allegedly prevented her from working with a competing broadcaster until June 2006 (the case was dismissed by the Supreme Court on 30 December 2005, allowing Rowe to debut at the commencement of the ratings year, on 30 January 2006).

Former Channel 10 newsreader Jessica Rowe, arrives with her husband Peter Overton and legal representatives, at the Supreme Court, over a contractual dispute with Channel Ten. Rowe has been signed as the new host of the Today show on Channel Nine, 28 December 2005.
Outgoing Channel 10 newsreader Jessica Rowe faced legal action by her former employer after accepting a hosting role on Today in December 2005. Photo: Getty Images.

Rowe never really had a chance to bed into the role. Scathing reports appeared in newspapers almost immediately, commentators criticising her for all manner of things, including “giggling too much” and having a lack of on-air chemistry with Stefanovic. One particularly nasty headline that year questioned whether she was “The Most Annoying Person On TV”.

In June 2006, news reports surfaced that then-CEO Eddie McGuire intended to “bone” (that is, sack) Rowe. The comments were released in a sworn affidavit during court proceedings involving the Head of News, Mark Llewellyn. McGuire has since denied he used that term, telling GQ magazine, “I checked myself, as it was a word that was bandied about – but it was a Sydney term and it was one that Mark Llewellyn, and others, used quite regularly. I use the term 'burn'," he said.

“Having said that, it was a rhetorical question put to the director of news as to what he was going to do to save Jessica Rowe as she was getting pounded [in the press]. And I refute that I said 'boned' – I may have said 'burned'.”

Whatever the semantics, Rowe has since spoken of the terrible toll that time – and those alleged comments – took on her mental health.

“That year was a terrible time in my life and it was not helped by public abuse, abuse from within the network that I worked at and abuse from someone who was in charge of that particular network,” she said on Studio 10 back in 2016.

“It was horrific and it preempted then a very dark period in my life ... A whole lot of factors contributed to be a perfect storm during that and it just makes me terribly sad.”

In November 2006 it was announced Rowe, who is married to Nine newsreader Peter Overton, would be taking maternity leave, to be replaced by Sarah Murdoch, ex-model and wife of media heir Lachlan Murdoch. In May 2007 it was announced Rowe would not be returning from her leave due to a “pay dispute” – a convenient out for both the network and the deeply unhappy star, who later went to work for rival Channel Seven.

Presenters Richard Wilkins, Lisa Wilkinson and Karl Stefanovic  present live on-air as part of the Today Show 25th birthday celebrations outside the Sydney Opera House on June 28, 2007 in Sydney, Australia.
Today's Richard Wilkins, Lisa Wilkinson and Karl Stefanovic celebrated the show's 25th birthday outside the Sydney Opera House in 2007. Photo: Getty Images.

Lisa Wilkinson joins Today

It was a case of switcheroo, as in 2007 it was announced veteran magazine journalist Lisa Wilkinson would be replacing Rowe on Today. At the time she was working for Channel Seven’s Weekend Sunrise after switching careers from print to broadcasting at the start of the naughties. Well-liked by viewers of that show, she was the obvious choice to replace Rowe at the rival network.

Stefanovic and Wilkinson were a successful pairing and ratings for the show climbed steadily over ten years. Though news headlines were at times negative, (Karl famously appeared drunk on the show the morning after the 2009 Logies), his antics were mostly chalked up to his “larrikin” personality, and the show weathered the controversies.

In 2014 Stefanovic famously wore the same suit for an entire year, to make a point about how differently he was treated when compared to his female co-host – the gesture was roundly applauded, winning him more fans for his political stand.

In 2011 Stefanovic’s popularity peaked and he won the coveted TV Week Gold Logie for most popular personality on television.

TV personality Karl Stefanovic poses in the media room with the Gold Logie award during the 2011 Logie Awards at Crown Palladium on May 1, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.
Karl with his Gold Logie for most popular personality on television in 2011. Photo: Getty Images.

Lisa Wilkinson leaves Today amidst controversy

In 2016, Today was riding high, having claimed the most weekly victories in the five major capital cities, inching closer to Sunrise’s overall ratings dominance. But their victory lap didn’t last long. By the following year, the show’s winning streak was coming to an end, due, in part, to Stefanovic’s offscreen relationship dramas.

His ‘family man’ persona took a beating during this period, as his messy divorce from wife of 21 years, Cassandra Thorburn, played out publicly in 2016. And while his new relationship with much-younger Jasmine Yarbrough (whom he’d met at a party aboard a yacht on Sydney Harbour at the end of that year) went from strength to strength, his personal popularity with viewers began to wane.

Put simply – people just weren’t as keen to ‘wake up’ with Stefanovic on Today anymore.

Cassandra Thorburn and Karl Stefanovic attend the Sydney Global Illumination Gala Dinner 2008 in support of the National Breast Cancer Foundation, at the University of Sydney on October 16, 2008 in Sydney, Australia.
Karl Stefanovic and his first wife, Cassandra Thorburn, divorced in 2016 after 21 years of marriage. Photo: Getty Images.

The presenter didn’t help matters when in June of 2017 he left mid-show to jet off on a holiday with James Packer to Bora Bora. He and Yarbrough were a part of a small group of friends invited to stay aboard Packer’s 87m ­converted icebreaker, Arctic P, and he left the show early — Richard Wilkins stepping in to replace him mid-show — in order to catch his flight.

It was not a good look.

Things came to a head on October 16, 2017, when co-host Wilkinson famously resigned from the Nine Network and Today due to a contract dispute. At the time she cited “lots of reasons,” but it’s been widely reported it was, in fact, over pay parity. Reports claim Wilkinson refused to re-sign with the network as her contract fell $200,000 short of Stefanovic’s rumoured $2million salary.

Nine refused her request (in its defence, they said the disparity was due to Stefanovic’s other commitments with the network) and within the hour Wilkinson had announced she’d be jumping ship to Ten to join The Project on a contract reportedly worth over $2million once her external endorsements were factored in (the Network were prepared to allow them, while Nine, reportedly, were not).

Karl, Lisa and Richard Wilkinson on location for Today in September 2017. Photo: Instagram/thetodayshow.
Karl, Lisa and Richard Wilkinson on location for Today in September 2017. Photo: Instagram/thetodayshow.

Karl Stefanovic sacked from Today

Nine were blindsided, and in the year that followed, they tried everything they could to restore the credibility of the show and boost it’s bad ratings, first installing Deborah Knight as temporary replacement co-host, then announcing Georgie Gardner would step in from January 2018.

Her pairing with Karl was a ratings disaster, and later that year, while his high-profile wedding to Yarbrough was playing out across magazines and newspapers around the country, Karl learnt he was being let go by the show – while on his honeymoon, no less.

Peter Stefanovic and Karl Stefanovic Ubergate scandal

His sacking might seem extreme, but when you consider what had played out earlier that year, it’s not entirely surprising. In March of 2018, an Uber driver recounted an astonishing conversation that occurred in the back of his car between Karl Stefanovic and his brother Peter (who was the passenger in the car).

Peter was then host of Weekend Today, and the brothers had a LOT to say about their colleagues, reportedly launching a 45-minute attack on their co-workers, including Richard Wilkins, Georgie Gardner, Mark Burrows and their Nine bosses – all while on speakerphone.

Karl Stefanovic and Jasmine Yarbrough attend the annual Gold Dinner at Fox Studios on May 30, 2019 in Sydney, Australia.
Karl Stefanovic tied the knot with his second wife, Jasmine Yarbrough, in December 2018 - the same time he was fired from Today. Photo: Getty Images.

The exchange was printed in New Idea magazine and the pair were forced to issue a grovelling apology.

“We talk a hundred times a day and hardly ever about work,” Karl told the Sunday Telegraph.

“But we did, and the conversation was recorded. And we are sorry. I was angry with myself at first that I could be so stupid.”

Peter Stefanovic, who was newly married to the Today show’s resident newsreader Sylvia Jeffreys, was also mortified, and went on the record saying, “I did a silly thing and feel awful for any embarrassment I've brought to my [Channel 9] colleagues, who I deeply ­respect”.

But the damage had been done, and in late November 2018, around the time Karl was being given his marching orders from Today, Peter also announced he’d be leaving the Nine Network (reportedly pre-empting his sacking, though this has never been confirmed). Jeffries was also let go from the show.

Today show lineup changes

This left the program in a heck of a quandary. Producers realised they had to radically alter its format to entice viewers back – but how?

In late 2018 it was announced the show would introduce an all-female co-hosting lineup, pairing Georgie Gardner with experienced news reporter, Deborah Knight, starting in 2019. Veteran entertainment reporter Richard Wilkins would be moved aside to Today Extra to make way for ex-ABC reporter Brooke Boney. Tom Steinfort would be filling Sylvia Jeffreys’ shoes as newsreader, while Melbourne sports presenter Tony Jones and Nine finance editor Ross Greenwood would also be signing on.

The Today lineup as of April 2019: co-hosts Deborah Knight and Georgie Gardner with Tom Steinfort and Brooke Boney. Photo: Instagram/thetodayshow.
The Today lineup as of April 2019: co-hosts Deborah Knight and Georgie Gardner with Tom Steinfort and Brooke Boney. Photo: Instagram/thetodayshow.

Today show ratings disaster

The change of lineup did nothing for the show’s ratings, and during 2019 things went from bad to worse, Today’s metro audience dipping below 200,000 for the first time. In March of that year, ABC’s News Breakfast boasted more viewers nationally than Today for the first time – a shocking wakeup call for the network.

By the time the ratings year was wrapping up in November, Today had suffered its worst result yet, gaining a miserable 155,000 viewers in the five capital cities for one of its shows.

“2019 was Today’s Annus horribilis as viewers switched off and the wheels came off behind the scenes,” ex-Studio 10 producer, now host of the TV Blackbox podcast, Rob McKnight told news.com.au recently.

“It will be a year executives would rather forget. We were promised a brand new show and simply got more of the same just with different presenters. There was nothing for viewers to get excited about and watching the show was more of a punishment than entertainment.”

Ouch.

It was clear that something was amiss between the presenters, tensions playing out later in the year when sports presenter Tony Jones launched a series of snarky comments during a live cross to his co-hosts from Sandown Racetrack.

“The biggest problem with the show was a complete lack of chemistry,” McKnight said to news.com.au. “Deb Knight and Georgie Gardner are both fantastic newsreaders, but they just didn’t click in the breakfast environment.

“I know commentary has been written about the fact Australia doesn’t want two females hosting, but that’s a load of old tosh. The problem was the chemistry.”

Karl made his return to hosting Today alongside Allison Langdon in early 2020. Photo: Channel Nine.
Karl made his return to hosting Today alongside Allison Langdon in early 2020. Photo: Channel Nine.

Karl Stefanovic returns to Today

The show was in a right old pickle. But how to solve it? The Nine Network appeared to think the answer was in bringing Stefanovic back into the fold, and in November 2019 they announced he’d be returning to the show in 2020 to co-host alongside respected 60 Minutes reporter, Allison Langdon.

Perth newsreader Tracy Vo would be brought in to replace Tom Steinfort as news presenter and Alex Cullen would replace Tony Jones on sports. Tim Davies would step in to replace Stevie Jacobs as weather presenter, while Brooke Boney would remain, making her the only presenter left from the ill-fated 2019 lineup.

It was a stunning reversal for the network, who conceded the show had failed to land with audiences the previous year, their head of news, Darren Wick describing their decision to pair Gardner with Knight as “a bold decision to try something new with two women hosting ... and sadly that has not worked”.

Karl Stefanovic says he was surprised to have been asked back

“Yes, I am as shocked about this as everyone else,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald in November 2019. "It's not something that I thought would come up again. I thought my time was up, but then, when I was sounded out about it, it got me thinking. It’s a big job with enormous pressures and I know only too well some of those pitfalls, but it is also without question the best live TV job in Australia.”

He conceded that the previous year had been incredibly difficult for his ex-colleagues, saying he knew only too well how negative news headlines could affect your ability to do your job.

Karl and his second wife, Jasmine Yarbrough, welcomed their first child together - a daughter named Harper - in May 2020. Photo: Instagram/karlstefanovic_.
Karl and his second wife, Jasmine Yarbrough, welcomed their first child together - a daughter named Harper - in May 2020. Photo: Instagram/karlstefanovic_.

“It is hard enough to be across the story briefs up early every day without those storms from outside impacting you,” he told SMH. “I know what great journalists they are, how professional and how hard they work, and I admire them both."

It’s believed Stefanovic’s new contract is worth much less than the rumoured millions he had reportedly managed to negotiate when Today was on a ratings high in 2015. But eager to reestablish his career, he accepted the role once more. Recognising his personal life may have played a part in his fall from favour, Stefanovic told SMH he was “a lot more settled now” adding, "My work focus is solely on our stories and the way we tell them. We will have fun and when the time calls for it, we will be serious. We've covered big stories all around the world, we know how to do that... and yes, we are hungry for success.”

In May 2020 Stefanovic and Yarbrough welcomed their first child together, a girl named Harper May Stefanovic, who was born on May 1 (she is Stefanovic’s fourth child – he already has three others with Thorburn: Jackson, 20, Ava, 15 and River, 13).

Karl Stefanovic on set of Channel Nine's Today show
The show's ratings are still struggling following Karl's reappointment. Photo: Channel Nine.

Today show ratings battle 2020

Ratings for Today remain much lower than the network would like but have been steadily climbing this year, no doubt a relief for news executives at the station. In late May the show, which had been focusing on the American Black Lives Matter protests, attracted a metro audience of 234,000 – just 29,000 behind Sunrise, which had 263,000 viewers.

But they’ve still got a long way to go – this year Sunrise has increased its lead over Today, sometimes by more than 100,000 viewers in the five metro markets. ABC’s News Breakfast is also nipping at Today’s heels and has beaten the show on several occasions this year, most famously in the eight weeks from March, when Australia was in COVID-19 lockdown. The show achieved a national average of 367,000 (up 118,000 from its 2019 average), and while Sunrise maintained a clear lead with 553,000 viewers (up 96,000), Today managed 350,000 (up 60,000), making it third place in the ratings for the first time in its history.

But Nine has faith in the new pairing of Stefanovic and Langdon, a spokesperson saying in May, “As we’ve said from the start of the year, it’s a marathon not a sprint.”

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