Matt Lauer, Savannah Guthrie and the rest of the “Today” crew have more reason than ever to smile when they greet viewers in the morning.
George Stephanopoulos, Robin Roberts and the gang at ABC’s “Good Morning America” have continued to do what they do best, winning the most viewers of any morning-news program in the United States. Yet their rivals at NBC’s “Today” have, at least for now, captured a different – and perhaps more important – distinction. For more than a month, Lauer, Guthrie, Natalie Morales and Al Roker have lured more of the viewers that advertisers demand.
Even though “GMA” dethroned “Today” as America’s best-watched morning show in 2012 amidst a viewer backlash over the ouster of then-host Ann Curry, the scorched-earth battle between the two has never really ceased. And now, it seems as if it is actually intensifying. For five weeks, “Today” has won more viewers between the ages of 25 and 54, the demographic most desired by sponsors of news programs, marking the program’s best stretch in more than three years. To be sure, “GMA” wooed 380,000 more viewers than “Today”during the week of September 28, but a year earlier, the ABC show enjoyed a much broader margin of victory: 893,000.
“’GMA’ was beating NBC in that all important news demo, but in August it seems that NBC has gained momentum and overtaken ‘GMA’ in each week since the last week of August,” said Billie Gold, vice president and director of programming research for Amplifi U.S., a media-buying entity that is part of Japan’s Dentsu. NBC and ABC have good reason to pay attention to these trends: Should “Today” continue to win those viewers, advertisers could change the way they allocate dollars to both programs.
No one at “Today” is celebrating the ratings shift, according to one person familiar with the program. Instead, producers realize the tightening viewership numbers mean the “ongoing knife fight” between the two shows will only grow more contentious, the person said.
The ratings movement comes after producers at “Today” have quietly tweaked the program over several months. There has been new emphasis placed on nabbing big “gets,” or agenda-setting interviews, and placing them in the show’s first hour. A segment involving the show’s “Orange Room,” a center where Carson Daly sifts through trendlets in social media, has moved out of the program’s first 30 minutes and been given more time after 8 p.m.
And there have been cosmetic changes as well: Gone are the central wooden desk and some of the oranges that colored the set, in favor of a brighter decor and color scheme. When “Today” opens each morning now, the focus is squarely on Lauer and Guthrie, rather than the entire ensemble. Doing so allows “Today” to move more quickly to news, the person familiar with the show explained, dispensing with chit-chat and catch-ups with whoever is on set that day.
At ABC, “Good Morning America” producers are less concerned with “Today” and more with a different kind of competitor: mobile devices and a growing audience that looks for news online, not TV. The show is placing more emphasis on using “GMA” as a platform for live-TV coverage that consumers cannot get from digital media, according to one person familiar with the program.
Such stuff could encompass live “of the moment” interviews with people in the midst of newsy situations, this person said, like a September 10 talk between Robin Roberts and James Blake, the tennis star mistaken for a criminal and treated roughly by New York police. But producers are also intrigued by the notion of giving viewers looks at things they cannot see in everyday life. “GMA” recently sent a drone over the top of a volcano, and has dispatched meteorologist Ginger Zee to far-flung locales and shown her jumping out of a plane.
Even so, the two programs continue to jockey with one another for newsmaker sit-downs. In recent months, Lauer has nabbed interviews with Joyce Mitchell, the New York prison seamstress who helped two criminals escape captivity; Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP chapter president accused of pretending to be black” and Tracy Morgan, the comedian and actor who is mounting a comeback after suffering injuries in a terrible car accident. At “GMA,” meanwhile, news anchor Amy Robach nabbed the first on-air network interview with Monica Lewinsky in a decade, while Stephanopoulos has secured time with both Jeb Bush and Donald Trump
“The booking wars are about to reach a whole new level,” said the person familiar with “GMA.” “There are ways you can distinguish yourself and one is through quality content.”
To be sure, more is at work behind the two shows’ ratings than guests and hosts. NBC has two of TV’s best-watched programs – “Sunday Night Football” and “The Voice” – generating good primetime audiences who can be persuaded through promos to tune in to “Today” the next morning.
And “GMA” may have an odd condition: Much of the off-air drama that surrounded its anchors has dissipated. Robin Roberts, whose struggle with the bone-marrow disease myelodysplastic syndrome fueled interest in her personal health in 2012 and 2013, is in good spirits, as is Amy Robach, the news anchor who took viewers inside her fight with cancer in 2013.
No matter which show has the most viewers, their struggles to outmaneuver one another seem likely to continue well into 2016.