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With media attention focused on turmoil at other network newscasts, NBC’s top-rated morning show is quietly weighing its own shake-up as co-host Meredith Vieira considers a future without Today.
Vieira, who seamlessly took the reins opposite Matt Lauer nearly five years ago, is said to be considering leaving the program when her reported $11 million annual contract expires in September. According to sources, Vieira, 57, has tired of the grueling lifestyle and would like to spend more time with her ill husband.
“There is going to be an opening; she’s done,” says one source with knowledge of the situation. Another suggests she is still making her decision but that re-upping looks unlikely.
Although NBC News executives proved adept at the host transition when 15-year veteran Katie Couric stepped down in 2006, Vieira’s departure would nonetheless create a void at the dominant morning franchise — and an opportunity for rivals to pounce. In addition to being among the longest-running programs, Today has been the top-rated morning show for nearly 800 consecutive weeks (or more than 15 years). That longevity, coupled with its airtime — four hours Monday-Friday and three hours on the weekend — has made the show a profit center for NBC News. Today generated $454 million in ad revenue last year for its weekday broadcasts alone, according to estimates provided by Kantar Media. (By comparison, 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.)
Vieira, who still hosts the syndicated game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, could decide to extend her contract for another 12 months as she did last year. But sources say the Today team has already started weighing replacement options. Potential heirs apparent to Vieira are said to include Today’s Ann Curry and Natalie Morales, Washington correspondent Savannah Guthrie and CNBC’s Erin Burnett. (Lauer, who has co-hosted Today since 1997, is locked in longer than Vieira, but his potential departure has NBC News eyeing its male anchor crop, including MSNBC’s Willie Geist and CNBC’s Carl Quintanilla.)
An NBC News spokesperson declined comment on possible anchor changes, except to say, “The Today show anchors are currently under contract and firmly in place.” Reps for Vieira declined comment.
Curry and Morales have the advantage of being familiar to NBC’s morning viewers. Curry, in particular, has paid her dues at Today, where she has been the show’s news anchor since 1997. Whether she’ll walk if the job doesn’t become hers is a concern that will inevitably be factored into the decision-making process.
For her part, Burnett has seen her profile steadily rise at the company. She hosts CNBC’s Squawk on the Street and Street Signs and appears on various NBC News programs to comment on financial stories. But while she sometimes turns up on Today, one source suggests NBC higher-ups are not convinced she’s a good fit for morning television.
Guthrie is said to have executives at the network most excited. The 39-year-old lawyer by training has proved a natural at traversing hard news and features — a requirement for a network morning show — when she has filled in for Vieira.
If Vieira does decide to bolt, it won’t come as a major surprise to anyone who has paid attention to her comments through the years. “A couple months into it, a little voice in my head said at 3:30, ‘You’re mentally ill; don’t get up,’ ” Vieira told the New York Daily News in 2006.
She has been similarly candid about having to navigate the personal burden of her husband Richard Cohen’s long battle with multiple sclerosis. “I’ll know when it’s time to go, and I’m not afraid,” she told Ladies’ Home Journal in October. “If I were to leave Today at the end of next year because it’s time for me, I wouldn’t jump to another show. I would look forward to not working, to traveling with Richard and carving out time for us.”
The possible Today transition comes in the wake of continued ratings erosion for broadcast news in general as well as a shakeup at CBS’ The Early Show and tinkering at ABC’s Good Morning America. While the broadcast morning shows still command significant audiences compared to their early hours competition – programs on NBC, ABC and CBS averaged 12.4 million viewers in aggregate last year– they have largely failed to build viewership among the younger demographics favored by advertisers. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s annual State of the News Media report, morning news fell another 3% in 2010, the sixth consecutive year of losses.
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 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 go to Nightline where she will be a fill-in anchor and helm many of this summer’s primetime Nightline hours.
The tweaks have yet to push either broadcast ahead of Today, of course. For the first quarter, Today averaged 5.6 million viewers, followed by GMA (4.9 million) and The Early Show (2.6 million), according Nielsen. And in the all-important 25-54 demographic, Today posted its largest margin over GMA since 2004, luring 2.5 million compared to the latter’s 1.8 million.
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