A look at the three network talkers

The morning-show wars are heating up — especially among executive producers whose favorite sport is dissing the competition. First-quarter ratings had NBC’s “Today” on top with 5.73 million total viewers, ABC’s “Good Morning America” with 4.98 million and CBS’ “The Early Show” with 2.96 million. Here’s a look at the personalities and players driving the three network talkers and a look at what the future holds.

TODAY

The vibe: Studio 1A’s makeover last fall that coincided with Meredith Vieira’s arrival saw the show’s signature folksy look exchanged for decidedly more futuristic decor, but the chatty camaraderie between the players remains.

The players: Having finally emerged out from under Katie Couric’s shadow, Matt Lauer has earned unofficial top billing even though he shares the co-anchor title with Vieira. The former star of “The View” admits she’s still trying to find her footing after seven months juggling hard news and lighter fare. The team is rounded out by Ann Curry and Al Roker.

Signature segments: The much-imitated Concert Series; Where in the World Is Matt Lauer?

Greatest hits: Lauer’s infamous tete-a-tete with Tom Cruise (“Matt, Matt, Matt … you’re glib”) and Curry’s three trips to Darfur.

By the numbers: Despite its lowest first-quarter ratings in more than a decade, “Today” is No. 1 with 5.31 million viewers. Its lead over “GMA” may seesaw (only 570,000 viewers separated the two the week of March 19), but “Today” has never lost its hold on the top spot.

What’s next: The show goes to four hours (filled mostly with infotainment and more celebrity coverage) in September, but it remains to be seen if there’s enough viewers to keep a fourth hour afloat.

THE EARLY SHOW

The vibe: “Today” lite.

The players: It’s a bit crowded at “TES” as Harry Smith, Julie Chen and Hannah Storm share the title of co-anchor. Smith gives the group gravitas on hard-news stories and is far and away the show’s best interviewer. The highly caffeinated Dave Price injects some much-needed New York energy into the mix. Ross Mitchell completes the team.

Signature segments: “Survivor” castoff interviews; “All Access Tours”; HealthWatch.

Greatest hits: Smith’s coverage of the Amish school shootings was riveting and, says Steve Friedman, VP in charge of morning broadcasting: “We were excited to get the guy from Australia who was almost eaten by a shark.”

By the numbers: With “TES” perennially in last place, Friedman finds a silver lining in the show’s gains among viewers. “We were 3.3 million behind last year. Now we’re 2.6 million behind. We picked up 700,000. It’s clear the ‘Today’ show misses Katie Couric.”

What’s next: “I’d like to take the show on the road more this summer and get it away from New York,” Friedman says. But unless there’s a wholesale defection from “Today” or “GMA,” “TES’s” fortunes aren’t changing anytime soon.

GOOD MORNING AMERICA

The vibe: Times Square locale and studio audience give “GMA” a tourist-attraction feel that sometimes distracts from the show’s more serious news side.

The players: Diane Sawyer is clearly the star despite the show’s efforts to bill Robin Roberts (promoted to co-anchor when Charles Gibson left to helm “The Evening News”) as equal partner. Says exec producer Jim Murphy: the “historic” pairing of two women anchors has been “largely ignored by the media, who were too focused on another story” (Couric’s ascension as first female anchor of a network news broadcast). Chris Cuomo and Sam Champion complete the bill.

Signature segments: Town Hall meetings with ’08 presidential hopefuls that kicked off with Hillary Clinton; summer concerts in Bryant Park; Dancing With the Moms, which trades on the network’s megahit.

Greatest hits: Sawyer’s reporting from Iran and North Korea, Dr. Tim Johnson on Elizabeth Edwards’ recent cancer reoccurrence.

By the numbers: Down 5% from a year ago when Gibson was still there.

What’s next: Controversial cabler Glenn Beck was signed as a guest commentator earlier this year. As for the big picture, “GMA” is betting on its aggressive stance covering the war and the presidential race to woo disenchanted news junkies from “Today.”

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