Eye’s ‘Early Show’ gets up and at ’em

Industryites agree morning landscape is on the march

NEW YORK — There’s strong coffee being brewed at CBS News’ “The Early Show,” with the weekday ayemer posting solid jolts in the ratings.

Whether it’s real mojo or decaf disguised as espresso is hard to say. But one thing is clear: There’s movement in the network morning game, that slice of the daypart known for being harder to shift than sludge.

NBC’s “Today” remains the market leader and is in no immediate danger of losing its No. 1 standing — but it’s not gaining viewers either. Year-to-date, show is flat or down across all ratings categories from the same frame last year, even with the Iraq war.

ABC’s “Good Morning America” has been making some gains on “Today,” saying its long-term plan for expansion is proving a winner. In recent weeks, “GMA” has been winning the New York market, no small achievement. And it’s been posting more growth than “Today” year-to-date.

But the blaring headline belongs to the “Early Show,” which bowed a multi-anchor format almost a year ago.

“Early” may be the perennial third in the ayem race, but it was the fastest growing network morning show during the 2002-’03 season and it just finished its best quarter in five years.

Best of all, program has registered double-digit weekly growth in total viewers and key demos over the past two months, including a 38% spike in adults 25-54 during the week of Sept. 29, as well as a 27% spike in women 25-54, the all-important ayem demo. It’s also up in adults 18-49 compared to the same time period last year.

Driving the format and subsequent growth spurt is “Early” senior exec producer Michael Bass, who worked at “Today” as No. 2 to wonderkid Jeff Zucker, who left the news biz to run the Peacock’s entertainment division.

“Morning television is sort of like toothpaste — if you used Colgate your whole life, you don’t suddenly go out and buy Crest. So to move the audience, you have to be patient and do a great program, which I think we have been consistently doing,” Bass says.

Bass said the four-anchor format is paying off; as is the decision this summer to hire local New York weatherman Dave Price. With his bookish good looks and sophisticated style, he appears a magnet for the gals. (Demo growth enjoyed by the show these past two months coincides with the weatherman’s arrival at the Eye in late July.) Price came from Fox O&O WNYW in New York.

The show’s four anchors are Julie Chen, Hannah Storm, Rene Syler and Harry Smith.

Certainly, “Early” has a long way to go before posing an imminent threat, with its aud year-to-date less than half of “Today” total aud. (2.7 million total viewers vs. 6.0 total viewers. GMA’s average aud year-to-date is 4.7 million.)

“Today” exec producer Tom Touchet says he’s not at all worried about the gains made by “Early,” considering how far behind the CBS show is.

“When you add sand to an anthill, it can seem significant, but if you add that same sand to the Sahara, it’s not going to look so large,” Touchet says.

Nor is Touchet, who took the top “Today” post last November, fretting about his alma mater, “GMA.” He’s still got the most watched personalities in morning TV — “Today” co-anchors Katie Couric and Matt Lauer, weatherman Al Roker and news anchor Ann Curry.

“Every now and again, ‘GMA’ will get a bump. Then we will take it back and it will be business as usual,” Touchet says.

“GMA” exec producer Shelley Ross agrees with Touchet on one point only–that “Early” isn’t a threat.

Ross came to ABC’s morning five years ago — the fifth exec producer in two years. Aggressive and savvy, Ross brought on younger correspondents to complement “GMA” co-anchors Diane Sawyer, among other initiatives.

“The show has really hit a stride,” Ross says. “You’d like a faster climb, sure. But we are up a full 20% compared to five years ago, and everybody knows that getting people to change their habits in the morning is a very slow process.”

As much as Touchet might downplay the recent boost at “Early” or the gains at “GMA,” behind the scenes, industryites agree that the morning landscape is on the march for now, however slow.

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