NBC Bets Big On Matt Lauer To Help Win Morning-Show Wars

Analysis: With 'Today' ad base crimped, longtime anchor faces a durable competitor and new pressures to get personal with viewers

NBC Bets Big On Matt Lauer

Matt Lauer was hosting “Today” when the venerable morning program lost its first-place status to ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Now the Peacock hopes his continued presence on the show will help it recapture its former glory.

In a move that resolves questions over the direction of one of the most durable programs in its lineup, NBC and Lauer struck a deal that will keep him on the program for at least the next two years. The move solidifies a lineup the NBCUniversal unit hopes can wrest the A.M. leadership position back from its Walt Disney-owned rival. Lauer’s renewal caps a series of recent maneuvers aimed at burnishing the morning talker, ranging from the addition of Carson Daly to the hiring of a new producer from ESPN who is expected to join the program later in the year.

NBC News did not provide additional details, but confirmed a report in The New York Times saying Lauer had signed a deal that would keep him on the show for “multiple” years. The report said Lauer’s current contract was expected to end “in the next few months.” The renewal comes even after Lauer took something of a hit in the press when his former co-host, longtime staffer Ann Curry, left the show in 2012 after it suffered in the ratings. Ken Lindner, who works as Lauer’s agent, could not be reached for immediate comment.

NBC has reason for wanting to improve “Today’s” ratings. “Today’s” ability to grow its ad base has been crimped in recent years. In fact, ad revenue for the first two hours of “Today,” when Lauer hosts, fell in 2013 – the first dip the show has experienced in years, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending (Ad revenue has increased in that time period each year since 2009). Ad revenue for “GMA” grew nearly 7% in 2012 and almost 10% in 2013, according to Kantar. Meanwhile, ad revenue for “”Today” grew just 2.6% in 2012 and slipped 0.3% in 2013.

Besides, “Today” is a linchpin for all of NBC as well as its news division. The program functions as a sort of viewer-assembly device, drawing eyeballs in the morning that may stick around for more as the day winds on and can also receive promotional messages about the rest of the Peacock’s lineup.

“Today” has made strides in closing “GMA’s” lead in viewers between 25 and 54 – the demographic advertisers focus on when they purchase news programming. And according to recent comments by NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke, the show has put a new focus on younger viewers, between 18 and 49, perhaps in an attempt to skew young.

Even in its weakened condition, “Today” draws more ad money than its competitor, Kantar said. In 2013, the first two hours of “Today” – the 9 a.m. hour is hosted by Willie Geist, Natalie Morales, Al Roker and Tamron Hall – took in $495.6 million, Kantar said, compared with $350.2 million for “GMA.” Some of that disparity comes from the fact :”Today” encompasses four hours total of NBC’s morning programming – the traditional first two hours, the 9 a.m. hour, and then a fourth hour hosted by Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb – and the network can use that to leverage package deals with sponsors.

Getting back the top spot will not be easy. “Good Morning America” has proved itself to be remarkably durable in recent months. The show has retained its top ratings even as two mainstays of its lineup – weatherman Sam Champion and news anchor Josh Elliott – left, respectively for The Weather Channel and NBC Sports. Meantime, Michael Strahan, the former football player who has added new life to syndicated Disney-owned talk show “Live! With Kelly and Michael,” has begun making appearances on “GMA,” giving rise to speculation that ABC might consider expanding the program’s hours.

Reviving the fortunes of “Today” is viewed as one of the most important tasks at hand for Deborah Turness, the British TV-news executive who took the reins of NBC News in August of last year. Under Turness, NBC has put a new promotional campaign behind the show and added segments hosted by Daly aimed at harnessing social media. In a statement, Turness called Lauer “the best in the business” and said, “there is nobody I would rather have in the Today anchor chair than Matt.”

Lauer, a straightforward presence on the show who expanded his range by substitute-hosting NBC’s recent Olympics broadcast when regular anchor Bob Costas was sidelined by eye trouble, could face new pressures in months to come. ABC’s show has used the personal travails of its on-air personnel to strike a chord with viewers.

Robin Roberts’ 2013 battle with myleodysplastic syndrome corresponded with a surge in the ratings for the ABC morning show. Late last year, she acknowledged her longstanding relationship with her girlfriend in a Facebook post that was subsequently passed along to media by ABC News. More recently, Amy Robach generated publicity by telling the story in November of her discovery of having breast cancer after receiving a mammogram on television a month earlier. The correspondent subsequently underwent a double mastectomy and returned to ABC’s air in December. In March, Robach was given news anchor duties on the show after Elliott departed.

“Today,” which likes to pride itself on relying more heavily on traditional journalism than its ABC counterpart, recently burnished some personal aspects of its hosts’ lives. In March, Savannah Guthrie, Lauer’s co-host, broadcast scenes from her wedding, where she announced to guests she was four months pregnant.