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On Saturday, NBC’s Today show officially marked 15 consecutive years as the No. 1 morning news show, a milestone that executive producer Jim Bell describes as a “remarkable streak.”
At the heart of that milestone, he says, is the chemistry among the show’s cast. It’s one of those intangibles that have felled many a morning news program. Co-hosts that don’t get along (Barbara Walters and Frank McGee — 1971-74) or stop getting along (Katie Couric and Matt Lauer — 1997-2006) are hard to watch.
“It’s more about the team than any individual,” says Bell. “You can find somebody who might be extraordinary on their own – a great interviewer, funny and smart – but if they don’t play well with the other kids in the sand box it’s going to make for a tough watch in the morning.”
The current Today co-hosts – Matt Lauer, who has been on the show since 1994, and Meredith Vieira, who recently celebrated four years at Today – have achieved a comfortable simpatico. News anchor Ann Curry and Al Roker are off-screen friends; Curry was a bridesmaid at Roker’s 1995 wedding to ABC News correspondent Deborah Roberts.
Meanwhile, CBS News last week jettisoned its entire morning show team in a sweeping overhaul that could be seen as a referendum on the chemistry between outgoing Early Show co-hosts Harry Smith and Maggie Rodriguez. (Beginning Jan. 3, they’ll be replaced Chris Wragge and Erica Hill.) And Good Morning America is about a year into an anchor transition that saw longtime co-host Diane Sawyer, the show’s biggest star, replaced by George Stephanopoulos.
“What’s really important is the chemistry and the camaraderie and we’ve got that,” says Bell. “You can’t fake it. You can fake it for a day maybe you can squeeze out a week. But you can’t fake it every single day.”
Today‘s winning streak began in 1995 when Bryant Gumbel and Couric co-hosted the show and NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker was the executive producer. The closest GMA came to overtaking its perennial rival was during the 2004-05 season when Ben Sherwood, newly named president of ABC News, was GMA‘s executive producer.
But as the media landscape has fragmented, the once mighty broadcast networks have seen their audience share decline. And broadcast news programs hamstrung by rigid timeslot hierarchies in an on-demand news and information culture have steadily shed viewers. Consider that in the first quarter of 2007, NBC’s Today delivered 5.7 million total viewers – at the time its lowest first quarter numbers in 11 years. (For the same quarter, GMA averaged 4.9 million followed by Early Show with 2.9 million).
Jump to 2010: For the week ending Dec. 3, Today averaged 5.6 million viewers while GMA was at 4.5 million and Early Show had 2.8 million. Year-over-year, Today is flat in the demo while GMA and Early Show are down. But Bell dismisses the notion that morning news programs are caught in an inevitable cycle of diminishing returns.
“I think there’s growth potential,” he says. “But that growth is going to have to be measured in other ways.”
For example: TodayShow.com averaged 36 million video streams a month for January-October 2010, according to Nielsen Video Census. That’s more than ABCNews.com and CBSNews.com combined.
“That’s a real business where there is high advertiser interest,” he says. “And that’s money that wasn’t being generated five or ten years ago.”
Asked if the morning news format is “calcified,” as one newspaper columnist recently asserted, Bell adds: “I think we’re certainly a lot less calcified than the newspaper business.”
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