Show celebrated its 55th year last week

NBC Universal has given a greenlight to a fourth hour of “Today,” in a bid to extend one of its most profitable franchises into a time period now dominated by syndicated cooking and talkshows.

The fourth hour (Daily Variety, Aug. 7) is the latest experiment in how far the network can push the “Today” franchise, which celebrated its 55th year last week and has spent 11 years atop the ratings.

NBC notified its affiliated stations late Friday that the net intends to make a fourth hour available to them starting in the fall and plans to unveil it Wednesday at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena.

NBC won’t announce names on Wednesday, but the net is looking only at internal talent, including expanded roles for third-hour hosts Ann Curry and Al Roker, as well as Campbell Brown and Natalie Morales.

A fourth hour will mean leaning more heavily on White House correspondent David Gregory, a frequent “Today” contributor. “Access Hollywood’s” Billy Bush and Maria Menounos also are in the mix.

The network is rushing to make the announcement ahead of any talent decisions to coincide with the National Assn. of Television Program Executives conference in Las Vegas, where stations shop for syndicated programming.

“We ask that you look at the value of an additional hour of ‘Today’ to your daytime schedule before you commit to any new or extended syndicated product,” wrote John Damiano, NBC’s exec veep of affiliate relations.

NBC’s decision to go ahead with a fourth hour coincides with a dearth of successful syndicated fare available to local stations. NBC Universal recently canceled its syndicated “The Megan Mullally Show,” which will go off the air in three weeks.

Carrying a fourth hour of “Today” means turning over an hour of local time to the network — never an easy decision for a local TV station, which depends on local advertising revenue.

“Most affiliates are generally pleased with the third hour of ‘Today,’ but there isn’t much of an appetite for taking another local hour and making it national,” said Marci Burdick, exec VP of broadcast and cable for Schurz Communications and chair of the NBC affiliate board. “They’d have to give us an hour somewhere else.”

Canceling the struggling daytime drama “Passions” and shifting that network time to 10 a.m. would make the decision more palatable to affils.

Net has cultivated a different look and feel for the third hour of “Today,” and a fourth hour would continue in that vein, competing against a mix of syndicated fare targeted at women such as “Rachael Ray,” “The Tyra Banks Show” and “Judge Judy.”

Co-host Matt Lauer has expressed concern that a fourth hour would dilute the “Today” brand.

“I have mixed emotions about it, and I’ve made it fairly clear,” he told TV Week. “I understand the strategic reasons for wanting to do it. I still want them to think it’s special when 7 o’clock rolls around and that cold open runs and they say, ‘This is “Today” on NBC.’ ”

For the last 20 years, the Peacock has steadily expanded the hours programmed under the “Today” banner. It added a Sunday edition in 1987 and a Saturday in 1992. The third hour was added in 2000 and has seen steady ratings growth.

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