NEW YORK — NBC’s “Today” show boss Jim Bell can breathe a little easier. But not too easy.
The show opened up a lead of 732,000 viewers over ABC’s “Good Morning America” last week, giving the newly ensconced Bell a welcome respite from the ratings heartburn and bad press that has plagued the show.
“Today’s” lead is its biggest since March and just below the 750,000-viewer margin the show held over “GMA” last year, before “Desperate Housewives” became a household name.
Bell was tapped to take over the declining “Today” show in April and could do little more than watch as “GMA” made a run for first during May sweeps, crushing “Today” on Mondays by using “secret scenes” from the previous night’s “Desperate Housewives.”
The strategy gave “GMA” its best sweeps in years and brought it within 40,000 viewers of ending the 10-year clinch “Today” has had on first place.
With the “Housewives” and the rest of ABC’s surging primetime sked now in reruns or on hiatus, however, “Today” is finding itself in much more familiar ratings territory.
Without a new “Housewives” the night before, “GMA” saw “Today” take Monday by 900,000 viewers.
In total viewers, “Today” averaged 5.6 million, compared to “GMA’s” 4.9 million and 2.5 million for CBS’ “The Early Show.”
Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson may yet take the morning crown when ABC’s primetime kicks in again this fall, but as the latest numbers show, it won’t be easy.
Six weeks into the job, Bell isn’t changing the formula, but he’s ratcheting up the competitive metabolism while cutting Katie Couric and Matt Lauer loose from scripts he feels made the show too predictable.
“From the beginning it struck me that Katie and Matt were able to be a little bit more off-the-cuff and not have the whole three hours scripted,” Bell said. “They don’t always need things on the teleprompter; it’s better to have them more casual and conversational.”
That means programming open air at the end of segments to allow more freeform reactions from the hosts. “People can sense when things are overly scripted,” he said.
Bell is also giving Lauer and Couric a reprieve from the third hour of the show, which has a new producer, former “Maury” exec producer Amy Rosenblum.
The third hour has become an opportunity to look at new talent, including Alexis Glick, Natalie Morales and Campbell Brown.
In the daily dogfight for guests, Bell has had some early, notable “gets”: the first interview with victorious Michael Jackson lawyer Thomas Mesereau Jr., “runaway bride” Jennifer Wilbanks and Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein the morning after W. Mark Felt came forward as Deep Throat.
“The ‘gets’ are critical, but it’s very competitive; a lot of times we’re going after the same things,” he said.
But “Today” was stung when “GMA” spirited six Jackson jurors from the courthouse and flew them to Times Square.
Par for the course in the morning show wars, says “GMA” exec producer Ben Sherwood. “The race is just as tight in the bookings competition as it is in the ratings,” he said. “It’s a reflection of the closeness of combat.”