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From AJR,   August/September 2012  issue

A Vulnerable Juggernaut   

Can NBC’s “Today” show fend off ABC’s ascendant challenger “Good Morning America?” Tues., July 10, 2012.


By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (potter@newslab.org) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.     

It was a sorry spectacle. For more than a week, NBC let Ann Curry twist slowly in the wind after word leaked that she was on her way out as co-host of the "Today" show barely a year after getting what she described as her "dream job." As one critic put it, watching her soldier on for those final days was like seeing "Dead Ann Walking." But while her departure was badly handled, it was unavoidable.

Curry was a known quantity at NBC; she'd spent 14 years as "Today's" newsreader before being promoted to co-host. But almost as soon as she moved up, "Today's" ratings headed down. The show's longtime dominance over ABC's "Good Morning America" ended in April, when "Today" was beaten for the first time in 852 weeks. As the season ended, Today remained first in total viewers, but its margin over "GMA" had shrunk by more than half. "Today's" audience was down 4 percent year-to-year, and "GMA's" was up by the same amount, leaving the two programs locked in their tightest ratings race in more than 16 years.

To Curry's defenders, her ouster is just another case of "blame the chick," a typical move by the old boys' club that still runs the networks. It's hardly the first time a female anchor has been tossed overboard in the face of ratings trouble. In fact, it's even happened at the "Today" show. Two decades ago, NBC dumped Deborah Norville after just one troubled year as co-host during which ABC swept into first place. It took NBC a full five years to recapture the morning crown.

The truth is, Curry was a bad fit for the role Katie Couric and Meredith Vieira filled so ably for a combined 20 years. She never seemed at ease shifting from newsmaker interviews to nonsense celebrity fluff, lacking the adaptability that's crucial for morning anchors. Curry and longtime co-host Matt Lauer never established the kind of on-air comfort level that viewers expect from morning TV teams, who spend hours every week as invited guests in their homes. And chemistry, or the lack of it, translates into money. Big money.

"Today" is NBC's most profitable program, pulling in an estimated $500 million a year in advertising revenue, about half of which is pure profit. According to Kantar Media data, "Today" alone is responsible for 10 percent of the network's total ad revenue for all programs, including entertainment. Since the price of commercials is pegged to ratings, it's no wonder the suits at 30 Rock sweat bullets over every morning news Nielsen point.

But there's more at stake in the battle for No. 1 than ad rates and bragging rights, as important as they are. The dominant morning show typically has an edge when booking high-profile guests and a higher value as a promotional vehicle for other network programs. And for NBC, staying on top in news matters more than ever, with the network's prime-time lineup languishing in last place.

Were "Today's" ratings woes all Curry's fault? "It's really hard to think of anything else that's going on" that could explain the slide, Andrew Tyndall, an analyst of network news, told USA Today. True, during Curry's tenure at "Today," not much changed at "Good Morning America"―by design. The network kept George Stephanopoulos at the helm even as he resumed his role as anchor of "This Week" on Sunday morning. But a huge revamp at CBS may have played a part in NBC's troubles.

After decades of failing to gain any traction with its lookalike morning show, CBS took an entirely different approach last November, putting PBS' Charlie Rose and Oprah gal pal Gayle King in charge of one hour each. The new program's emphasis on hard news and conversation is a radical departure from the usual morning mix of headlines and happy talk.

To no one's surprise, "CBS This Morning" hasn't exactly wowed the morning audience. In fact, in the show's first six months on the air, viewership dropped by 8 percent compared with the year before. Who benefited from CBS' decline? Arguably, ABC. Indeed, as the new lineup was being announced, an ABC insider told the New York Times, "people are doing a happy dance over here."

As CBS all but withdrew from the morning news battlefield, ABC ramped up its efforts to beat NBC at its own game. The "GMA" strategy could not have been more obvious than when the show brought in a substitute anchor for a week in April by the name of Katie Couric, who's now developing a daytime talk show for ABC. Shortly thereafter, "GMA" scored its first weekly win since 1995.

The "Today" show's new co-anchor, Savannah Guthrie, has spent the past year co-hosting the show's 9 a.m. hour while also serving as legal correspondent. But because many local stations don't carry that third hour, Guthrie is not nearly as familiar to "Today's" regular viewers as Curry was when she took over.  

Bottom line: NBC's longtime morning juggernaut is vulnerable. And I'd almost be willing to bet there's more happy dancing going on at ABC.