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Ratings-Hungry Today Show Turns to On-Air Prostate Exams for Matt Lauer and Al Roker

This morning’s “Today Show” delivered the stunt that NBC has been eagerly teasing all week: Matt Lauer and Al Roker got prostate exams live on the air. It was, fortunately, a bit of false advertising—the action happened behind closed doors. A digital clock ticked down the seconds from when each anchor entered the examination room to when the doctor emerged, triumphant. “Is it the best 34 seconds of your life? Probably not,” was Lauer’s appraisal when the deed was done.

Katie Couric’s colonoscopy on "The Today Show" in 2000 was so successful at raising awareness that the resulting bump in colonoscopies nationwide was dubbed “the Couric effect.” When Couric, whose husband died of colon cancer in 1998, left the show in 2006, she claimed that the colonoscopy was her “proudest professional accomplishment.” And for “Today,” you could say that the “Couric effect” was the smashing popularity of that episode—some 6.7 million viewers watched the procedure, about the same number of viewers who tuned in to “Today” for updates the morning after Bin Laden was killed. The ordeal happened to make for very good TV; it featured close-ups of the anchor’s intestines and the observation “I have a pretty little colon” from Couric as she lay in the hospital bed. So the Lauer-Roker prostate exam felt like a clear attempt not just at consciousness-raising but also at recapturing the ratings magic of that 2000 broadcast. It's obviously a moment when “Today” needs all the ratings help it can get.

Noble as the concept is, a prostate exam feels like a strange way to juice ratings. But stranger still were the show’s attempts to make the procedure telegenic.  En route to the doctor, Lauer and Roker strutted down the sidewalk to the tune of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” “We are going to do this in a tasteful way,” Savannah Guthrie promised with a tight laugh. To stir up suspense, anchor Tamron Hall read some viewer tweets early in the program (“It’s great to raise awareness about prostate exams but do we have to see @alroker and @mlauer have one? #badvisual”) and assured viewers that the action would take place behind a screen. “It’s like Vegas,” she said. “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

But it was not like Vegas at all. Lauer addressed the camera while standing in front of a very detailed prostate diagram. Upon emerging from the examination room, the doctor made a total of two jokes about his fingers. (“What he doesn’t know is that I had to lose five pounds in order to make my finger go—” he announced, holding a digit up for the camera, before someone mercifully cut him off.) We learned that Roker’s situation was a bit enlarged and needed monitoring, but no cause for concern. And most impressively: through it all, “The Today Show”’s faith in the drama of the stunt was unwavering. “This is so exciting,” Guthrie said, from the anchor desk. “This is the most exciting prostate exam.”