No summer hiatus in ayem wars

Strong 'Today' fends off competish

In the past, summers have been leisurely times for the network’s morning shows.

This year, NBC’s “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning America” and CBS’ “The Early Show” only seem to have escalated their morning show wars.

With “Today” having lost Katie Couric, “GMA” losing Charles Gibson and “The Early Show” with new boss Steve Friedman, all three are positioning to capitalize on the flux.

“Today” is racing to build a new set, in advance of the arrival of Meredith Viera on Sept. 13. “GMA” is looking for a news reader and weather person. “The Early Show” is trying new anchor combinations.

And even though the shows are in transition, bitter battles for stories continue. The most recent example came last week, when “Today” trumped “GMA” in getting the first interview with embattled Tour de France winner Floyd Landis.

Matt Lauer taped an interview with Landis just before 7 a.m., and “Today” quickly ran it at 7:10 a.m. That was 20 minutes before “GMA” was to do its own live Landis interview, which it apparently thought would be the first. That didn’t stop “GMA” for billing its interview as “First on GMA.”

Tempers at flared. Landis put out a press release saying he was “disappointed” that “Today” had broken an embargo. “Today” called Landis’ claim “sketchy” and said it had agreed to no such embargo.

In other words, It’s business usual in the cutthroat world of morning news.

Ratings-wise, “Today” is looking every bit the juggernaut it was before Couric left. In the eight weeks since she left the show, “Today” has actually padded its lead over “GMA” in total viewers.

The gap stands now at 20%, double what it was the same time last year when it was still reeling from a “GMA” surge to within 40,000 viewers in May 2005.

Even during Gibson’s farewell week at “GMA,” “Today” still won the week with substitute co-anchors David Gregory and Campbell Brown by a 646,000-viewer margin.

The rise in ratings for “Today” comes despite the disruption of having moved to a temporary set at the Plaza at Rockefeller Center (a set the network used for the Torino Olympics) while its street-level studio and control rooms are gutted for renovation.

“It was an ordeal,” says exec producer Jim Bell. “We faced an uphill battle this summer losing Katie and then losing our set.”

The show’s ratings lead, built in large part on regular “Today” subs like Gregory, Brown and Lester Holt, not to mention expanded roles for Lauer, Ann Curry and Natalie Morales has “Today” execs feeling like they’ve built a system even more powerful than the talent. The show’s signature street-level studio will be rebuilt with a lighter color palette, video screens instead of static backgrounds and mosaic glass.

Upstairs, a second full studio is under construction for the third hour, as well as a permanent kitchen, and the show is taking out additional space in the building for dressing rooms, hair and makeup.

Next season the show will use the plaza even more than it has in the past, including the Top of the Rock observation deck, says Phil Griffin, NBC News senior veep and exec-in-charge of “Today.”

There’s even talk in the open about a fourth hour. Back when “Today” launched its third hour in 2000, the idea of a fourth hour existed more as a watercooler punchline, but that talk has turned serious, and “Today” staff is preparing to be asked by NBC brass to make it happen.

“It’s serious, but it’s been serious for a while,” Griffin says. “They haven’t pulled the trigger on it, and I don’t know if they ever will, but if they do, we’re ready.”

If greenlit, a fourth hour would closely resemble the third, focusing on female auds and stories about family, fashion, medical issues, relationships, health and cooking.

Bell says the show often generates enough material for a fourth hour. “Granted some mornings it’s a stretch to get to three, but more often than not we’re cutting down to get to three,” he says.

Meanwhile, “Today” is girding for fresh energy from “GMA,” which has new leaders in former “CBS “Evening News” exec producer Jim Murphy and former “GMA” second-in-command Tom Cibrowski.

“We know ‘GMA’ is going to throw everything they’ve got at us,” Griffin says. “They are going to combat us and try to steal our audience, but I think we’re going to soar.”