With Meredith Vieira likely to exit when her Today contract expires in September and Matt Lauer possibly following her out the door – though not until December 2012 – NBC News executives certainly have their work cut out for them. Lauer has been a steady presence at Today since 1994 when he joined the show as news anchor. He was named co-host three years later. And while Vieira joined in 2006, her easy manner had an almost immediate calming effect at Today where she is well liked by the show’s crew and her on-air colleagues. It is that on-air chemistry – so intangible and so difficult to get right – that drives the success of morning news.
With more changes pending at ABC’s Good Morning America and a wholesale makeover earlier this year at CBS’ The Early Show, a Today transition comes at time of pronounced turmoil for morning news. And that roiling has the potential to spur viewer sampling, which is exactly what NBC News executives – and new NBC Universal chief Steve Burke – must be concerned about.
An NBC News spokesperson would not directly comment on potential changes but said in a statement: “Matt Lauer has a long term contract with NBC News and Today.”
In the wake of across-the-board belt-tightening when news divisions are required to not only inform the public but also turn a profit, the morning shows’ status as cash cows are more important than ever. With their preponderance of air time – Today programs four hours on weekdays and three hours over the weekend – they underwrite the rest of the news division.
Today generated $454 million in ad revenue last year for its weekday broadcasts alone, according to estimates provided by Kantar Media. ABC’s Good Morning America, a perennial No. 2, took in $314 million, and CBS’ Early Show, a distant third in the ratings, earned $178 million.
If Today is not in imminent danger of losing its grip on the top of the morning TV rankings, potential changes come as viewership continues to fracture. Broadcast news tune-in declined another 3.4 percent in 2010, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s annual State of the News Media report. Cable news viewership also is beginning to erode. Aggregate viewership for CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel fell substantially in 2010, nearly 14 percent according to the PEJ Study. Certainly CNN’s ratings troubles have been well publicized, but for the first time in the dozen years since PEJ has been monitoring the cable news networks, every channel is down.
To be sure, the broadcast morning shows still command significant audiences - programs on NBC, ABC and CBS attracted 12.4 million viewers in aggregate last year. But they were also down 3 percent, the sixth consecutive year of losses. And they have largely failed to build viewership among the younger demographics favored by advertisers.
In January, CBS News put in place an entirely new team led by Chris Wragge and Erica Hill. In the months since, the news division has seen 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager named chairman and former Fox News and Bloomberg executive David Rhodes coming aboard as president. While the pair’s top priority at the moment is Katie Couric and a potential transition at the CBS Evening News desk, both men also need to be assessing the division’s other broadcasts.
More recently, ABC News president Ben Sherwood announced a major personnel change on Good Morning America, the No. 2 morning show. ESPN’s Josh Elliott will be joining GMA as newsreader, replacing JuJu Chang, who will become a fill-in anchor on Nightline and also helm many of this summer’s primetime Nightline hours.
CNN’s American Morning also has yet to settle on a permanent co-host for Kiran Chetry after John Roberts ankled the network for a post with Fox News Channel in Atlanta, where his wife CNN anchor Kyra Phillips is based.