'Today' top of the morning for 11 years

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NEW YORK -- After a near-death experience in spring 2005 when "Good Morning America" mounted a strong challenge and weathering the departure of Katie Couric last May, "Today" is now marking its 11th straight year atop the morning news shows.

Friday marked 573 straight weeks on top of the time period, the longest of any show ever on television no matter when it aired. Today averaged 6.1 million viewers to "Good Morning America's" 5.1 million and 3 million for "The Early Show."

It's all the more remarkable considering "Today" has seen some of its most tumultuous times in its nearly 55-year history over the past two years. In spring 2005, "GMA" was closing in on "Today" with a 40,000-viewer gap one week, and a new behind-the-scenes team of Phil Griffin and Jim Bell took over. It wasn't long before they -- along with co-anchors Matt Lauer and Katie Couric and others in front of and behind the camera -- stemmed the bleeding and kept it well ahead of "GMA."

Earlier this year, "Today" went through another change -- and potential vulnerability -- with Couric's move to "CBS Evening News." But a breakout performance by Lauer, a strong bench and an outdoor studio helped keep "Today" on top as well as the arrival of co-anchor Meredith Vieira in September.

"What was critical in all of this was the summer," Griffin said Thursday. "Everybody came together at a time when a lot of people were expecting 'GMA' to make a real hard push."

Instead what Griffin called "the family" -- the regular on-air team and substitutes -- won most days during the summer leading into Vieira's arrival.

"Everybody was tight, everybody felt close and the new 'Today' show had begun and that's why I think we've maintained it," Griffin said.

Bell agreed.

"This summer we got a chance to both develop and bolster a really powerful bench and then of course launch Meredith," he said in a separate interview. "I think everybody just feels very good about things."

Bell also said that the first 30-45 minutes of "Today" has gotten a much more hard-news feel to it and that the show has gotten more nimble in reacting to news. He likened spring 2005's experience with "GMA" as a bit of a wakeup call.

"You don't go 11 years without some ups and downs, but what I think makes it notable is that ('Today') has weathered the ups and downs, the changes behind the scene and on air along the way," Bell said. "That's really what's important."
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