Analysis: Co-anchor's happy personal news could make for salvo in NBC's ongoing battle with ABC
In the grand scheme of things, Savannah Guthrie’s newly-announced pregnancy means very little to the world at large. But in the ongoing drama that is morning TV, this development could mean everything.
Guthrie, who was named co-anchor of “Today” last year, announced to the show’s audience this morning that she had gotten married over the weekend, and, what’s more, is four months pregnant. In times past, news anchors might have kept their personal lives separate from the tableau they present on camera, but, in these days of AM-show teams functioning more as a coffee klatch than a group of journalists, that era is over.
Now, the question will be whether NBC chooses to seize upon Guthrie’s happy news and use it as the latest salvo against ABC News and “Good Morning America,” where personal revelations seem to fly so fast they could make viewers stop to wonder if they are watching something reality-oriented on Bravo or TLC.
ABC News has made the most of Robin Roberts’ end-of-2013 decision to come out and acknowledge the longtime same-sex relationship she has had with her girlfriend, Amber Laign. Roberts’ personal Facebook post about the development might have gone unnoticed in the days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, but ABC News’ public-relations department quietly placed calls to journalists to alert them to its existence. Meantime, “GMA” has also gained publicity by tracking Amy Robach, the correspondent who in November divulged being diagnosed with breast cancer after getting a mammogram on live TV the prior month. Her story proved so intriguing that she made the cover of People magazine.
And these developments have proven so ratings-worthy that ABC News chief Ben Sherwood has become a subject of speculation in the burgeoning chatter about who might get Disney/ABC Television Group President Anne Sweeney’s job.
This is publicity “Today” could use. The show, which dominated the ratings for decades, has seemed to slip permanently into second place behind “GMA,” which garnered new audience as it followed anchor Roberts’ struggle with a rare blood disorder and bone-marrow transplant. Yes, it’s true, NBC has put a lot of focus on “Today”in recent weeks: The network has added a social-media “orange room” to the breakfast-cereal proceedings, with Carson Daly joining the effort and getting a seat on set; there’s a new marketing pitch behind the show, with the new slogan “Rise To Shine”; and “Today” got its fair share of reflected light during NBCUniversal’s recent Winter Olympics broadcast, where Matt Lauer filled in for Bob Costas and “Today” found a ratings halo effect.
None of that, so far at least, has derailed “GMA.” So one wonders if Guthrie’s happy personal event might become fodder for “Today” producers. A spokeswoman for the program did not immediately respond to an email query seeking details on producers’ intentions to follow up on Guthrie’s on-air disclosure.
If NBC News wants to follow the trends, executives will opt to follow Guthrie on her next trip to the obstetrician. “Morning shows have become entertainment programs. They are no longer news programs. The more friendly the casts and the more camaraderie displayed, the higher the ratings,” said Doug Spero, a former broadcast journalist who is now an associate professor of communication at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C. “And because morning shows are no longer ‘news,’ they don’t have to follow the same type of ethics or guidelines that a traditional broadcast news outlet have to follow. You don’t see Scott Pelley before he cuts to one of the correspondents in the field ask about where they were born, or any personal information of any kind. That’s the difference between news and entertainment.”
Is it? Because Renee Syler, a co-host of CBS News’ “The Early Show,” did an award-winning series on breast cancer on that program in 2003, after going for a routine mammogram and ending up with a tough diagnosis. The reporter decided to keep a video journal of her struggle, which ended up on air.
In today’s news climate, for good or ill, the personal is public. Insider-y revelations about marriage and pregnancy (Savannah Guthrie); breast cancer (Amy Robach); and even treatment for alcoholism (as disclosed in reports about ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas) are fodder for tweets, likes, and online comments. These disclosures are what America finds itself taking about. Its part of the conversation taking place second by second about the programs as they play out at the break of every dawn. And now that the networks bill the sunnyside shows as chatfests with pals, it will not be surprising if we see even more of them, more frequently and, sometimes, more personal than viewers might like.
Makes you wonder if Guthrie and new hubby Mike Feldman will start talking about baby names on “Today” before making a decision on one at home.