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A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
The morning television wars have taken another interesting turn. NBC’s Today show has topped ABC’s Good Morning America in the critical 25-to-54 demographic for five weeks in a row, beginning Aug. 31. And when Nielsen delivers final numbers for the week ending Oct. 9, the NBC program is expected to best GMA again, extending its streak to the longest in more than three years.
It’s not that Today is surging in the ratings. So far this year, both shows are down in viewers aged 25-to-54 — Today is just down less: 8.5 percent compared to GMA‘s 13 percent. For the first two weeks of the 2015-16 season, Today is down 1 percent in the demo and among total viewers, while GMA is down 21 percent in the demo and 11 percent in total viewers. (Third place finisher CBS This Morning is the only morning show up in both measures.) No one at Today is “popping any champagne corks,” as an NBC News insider puts it, but staffers feel the page finally has been turned on Ann Curry‘s tearful 2012 exit, the ensuing viewer backlash and GMA toppling Today‘s 16-year win streak (which was celebrated with champagne).
At stake are not only bragging rights but millions of dollars. In 2014, Today pulled in more than $435 million in ad revenue, according to Kantar, and nearly $600 million when factoring in the 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. hours. GMA, which airs two hours a day, grossed $363 million. Both shows have shown increases this year thanks to the robust ad market.
Today‘s regroup has been enabled by a busy news cycle dominated by the 2016 presidential race and surprise Republican frontrunner Donald Trump. (Trump has been a frequent guest on GMA and Today — but on the phone, since he has declined to make the trip to either show’s studio. He has not been a guest on CBS This Morning, which has refused to waive its requirement that he appear in person.) NBC News president Deborah Turness, now running day-to-day operations under top news executive Andy Lack, has stressed exclusive bookings and a more chatty set since she took over in 2013. Today has booked memorable interviews with Tracy Morgan, Hillary Clinton (in a New Hampshire town hall) and Joyce Mitchell, the New York prison seamstress who helped two inmates escape by smuggling tools in frozen meat. But GMA has answered with sit-downs with Hulk Hogan on his use of the N-word; Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples; and Monica Lewinsky in her first TV interview in 10 years.
GMA still leads in total viewers and has remained the top-rated morning show for the past three years, even as the full anchor team in place when the show first beat Today is no longer intact. Sam Champion left for the NBCUniversal-owned Weather Channel in 2013, and Josh Elliott exited last year for NBC Sports after contract talks with ABC News broke down, though lead anchors George Stephanopoulos and Robin Roberts, as well as Lara Spencer, remain. This makes Today the show with the longer-running anchor team, led by Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie.
Evidence suggests that on-air stability is key for morning shows, which attempt to build camaraderie with audiences. But there have been behind-the-scenes changes; producer Noah Oppenheim, who quit Today to work at reality power Reveille and then write screenplays, rejoined the show in March as Today begins prepping for the 2016 Olympics. “Today‘s technique has been to iron out kinks in the period between Olympic Games so that when the inevitable surge in sampling occurs, there is a viable and attractive product for people to switch to,” notes news analyst Andrew Tyndall.
Today arguably failed to capitalize on the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014; once the Games concluded, the show fell back behind GMA. So Today likely will continue to make changes; during the past few months, the show has introduced enterprise reporting segments. And the 9 a.m. hour anchored by Willie Geist, Tamron Hall, Natalie Morales and Al Roker could see a new face. Sources say Access Hollywood host Billy Bush is being courted to move from L.A. and join the hour as lead host, though he recently signed a new deal with NBCU-owned Access. Hiring Bush would signal both a further tilt toward celebrity coverage and away from traditional news at that hour and the likely end of rumors about Josh Elliot taking on a major role at Today. Access producers are said to have already put out feelers about possible replacements for Bush should he decide to head east. (NBC declined comment.)
In the meantime, NBC insiders say the Today team is focused on building on its recent momentum. “What is going on at the moment at Today is getting everything right for Rio,” says Tyndall. “That is when I expect it to be able to cash in conclusively on GMA‘s slippage.”
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