Natalie Morales, the popular news reader who has held forth on NBC’s “Today” since 2006, is taking up anchoring duties at “Access Hollywood,” part of a morning scramble at the Peacock as it moves to make its A.M. franchise more competitive beyond its core 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. block.
She will continue to contribute to “Today” as its West Coast Anchor and will also continue as a contributor to NBC’s “Dateline,” according to a memo sent Wednesday to staffers by Noah Oppenheim, an NBC News senior vice president who oversees “Today.” But the switch means she won’t be a regular presence on a program that relies on familiarity to develop a bond with its audience.
“With our show’s increasing focus on West Coast stories, it became clear to me that having a permanent anchor presence in LA would be of enormous value,” the executive said in the memo.
The move would seem to help pave the way for changes long expected at the 9 a.m. hour of “Today,” where Morales co-anchors with Tamron Hall, Al Roker, and Willie Geist. Billy Bush, who has long anchored “Access Hollywood” – one of Morales’ new perches – is expected to join that hour as part of the programming switch NBC is contemplating. In TV-news circles, one thought is that the network might unveil some of its new intentions before the start of its coverage of the 2016 Rio Olympics, which ought to bring more viewers to the morning institution.
Morales joined “Today” as a national correspondent in 2006, then became a co-anchor of the third hour in 2008, and joined the show’s flagship first two weekday hours in 2011.
Any change to the staffing of the programs is something to note, because it has the potential to upset the ties fostered with the audience. “People do feel there is more of that two-way connection going on, that we want to know how our viewers feel and what they are thinking,” Morales told Variety in 2014.
“Today” is locked in a scorched-earth battle with ABC rival “Good Morning America” for early-day dominance. After being usurped as the nation’s most-watched morning program, “Today” has battled back to win the audience most coveted by advertisers – people between 25 and 54. A much-scrutinized swap at ABC will bring former pro footballer Michael Strahan from the 9 a.m. syndicated program “Live” to “GMA” every day. But the switch could leave “Live” open to a new onslaught from a competitor as host Kelly Ripa strives to find chemistry with a new partner.
Morales’ move also means NBC will have to make new shuffles. She leaves open the news-reader slot in the 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. hours – assuming “Today” producers don’t have a different idea up their sleeves. A spokeswoman for “Today” was not immediately available to comment on whether Morales’ spot on the program would be filled.
In recent months, co-anchors Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie have opened the program without the rest of the team. The format allows the pair to dispense with greetings and small talk and get right to the news of the day.