Like most duels, this one starts at dawn.
About 5,000 people, some of them dressed in purple wigs or stars-and-stripes hats, have lined up outside Rumsey Playfield in New York’s Central Park in the wee hours of what will turn out to be a beautiful June morning. The attraction? A chance to watch Jennifer Lopez debut songs from her latest album on the nation’s most-watched morning show, ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Tom Cibrowski, the show’s senior executive producer, shows me a helicopter flying high above. The whirlybird is taking shots of this spectacle, which has a difficulty factor, logistically speaking, of 11. George Stephanopoulos, Amy Robach and other members of the “GMA” on-air team have had to tape segments during ad breaks to gain time to be ferried up to the concert site while the show is being broadcast. No matter. Securing J. Lo, says Cibrowski, represents “one of the greatest musical gets of the summer.” The show made sure viewers knew that, too, with multiple promos featuring Lopez saying: “I’m live here this morning — only on ‘Good Morning America.’ ” And it isn’t even 9 a.m.
The scene is very similar a few weeks later, when I visit “GMA’s” arch-rival, NBC’s “Today,” which is hosting crooner Jason Mraz in the plaza outside its studios at New York’s Rockefeller Center. By 6:30 a.m. on a humid July morning, a line of people hoping to gain access to the show snakes around 48th Street and well up New York’s famous Fifth Avenue. Alex Ficquette, an associate producer who joined “Today” in February, will seek people in the crowd who might have an interesting story to tell or have a fervent desire to talk to, say, news anchor Natalie Morales, spotted next to co-host Savannah Guthrie, swaying to Mraz’s lilting tunes.
Photo by Craig Cutler for Variety
These glitzy scenes are part of the fiercest competition in television these days, the battle for ayem supremacy between ABC and NBC. Two of TV’s most durable programs slug it out daily over a razor-thin margin of victory as they try anything and everything to woo viewers in the lucrative morning news race, where keeping the top spot seems less guaranteed than in years past. There are booking wars, digital innovations and, of late, a flurry of anchor shuffles. With the pace of change on both programs accelerating, the result is a Coke vs. Pepsi-like battle for hearts and minds that won’t reach the last drop any time soon.
“Never take for granted being No. 1,” says “GMA” co-anchor Robin Roberts. “The sports person in me says that once you do that, you get yourself in trouble. … My mother always said, ‘When you strut, you stumble.’ ”
“Today” led viewership among the coffee-and-cereal crowd for 16 years, but amid the on-air drama of Ann Curry’s short tenure as co-anchor opposite Matt Lauer, NBC’s cash cow was outmuscled in 2012 by a revived “GMA.” The ABC show has maintained that edge, despite the loss of two on-air personalities who helped take it to the top, Sam Champion and Josh Elliott.
Now, reclaiming the morning television crown is nothing short of a mania inside NBCUniversal. CEO Steve Burke made a point of touting “Today’s” improved numbers as well as its 18-to-49 rankings during a sit-down session with reporters in March, and the ABC team is just as determined to retain its preeminence.
The competitive fervor between the two shows is heightened by the fact that the difference between No. 1 and No. 2 in the target adults 25-54 demographic is only about 124,000 — less than two football stadiums’ worth of people. Season to date as of July 20, “GMA” has continued to lead “Today” by a handy average of 653,000 viewers overall, according to Nielsen. “GMA” increased its lead in total viewers since September 2013 by 329,000, no small feat when TV viewers are dispersing to all kinds of new video opportunities. “Today” boosted its total audience by 334,000. CBS also has grown total viewership during the past two years, by more than 500,000 for “CBS This Morning” with its newsier makeover featuring anchors Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell.
“The viewers aren’t just going to come overnight. It’s going to take them a while to recognize that it’s time to come back,” says Don Nash, “Today” executive producer. “We have built it, and now we just need the viewers to come. And they will.”
Not, in ABC’s view, from those watching “GMA.” “We are not going to stop innovating. We are not going to stop trying. We are not going to rest on our laurels,” says Cibrowski, describing a mindset more akin to that of a scrappy entrepreneur than an entrenched champion.
On set, the two shows could not be more different. About a dozen crew members work in near silence on “Today,” befitting, perhaps, its recent decision to emphasize news coverage after dabbling to ill effect on lurid crime headlines and more frivolous fare. At “GMA,” twice as many people — stylists, carpenters and others — roam the room, and feel free to speak even while the broadcast is live. Robach, who once anchored the weekend edition of “Today,” says she experienced “culture shock” when she arrived at “GMA,” where the anchors may laugh at something said off camera or during a commercial break, then talk about it with the audience. “What you see is what you get,” Roberts says. “It’s not like the camera comes on and we are one way, and then it goes away and we are another way.”
The work is grueling. As I discover over four visits to the shows, the human brain does not naturally flicker to life at 4 a.m., which is when the workday starts for most morning-TV folks. Some of the anchors are up even earlier: Stephanopoulos says he rises at 2:30 a.m. each day so he can meditate and take in breaking headlines before he goes on air. When the shows are over, the anchors’ day just starts. There are interviews to book, meetings to attend. Before they go to sleep, many of the staffers prep for the next day by reading the latest on breaking stories. Roberts is surprised by people who think her workday ends when “GMA” signs off at 9. Guthrie’s advice: Don’t slow down. Once you take a break, she tells me, your body wants more rest.
The burden isn’t going to get any lighter. “Today” must overcome what NBC News president Deborah Turness calls “a long, slow decline” that actually began in 2000. The show’s numbers were so great for so long that producers stopped looking at who might be creeping up on them. By the time “GMA” broke through, the ouster of Curry in 2012 by those in charge of “Today” had an unintended effect. “The action that they took ended up being the very catalyst that propelled (the show) to the No. 2 position almost overnight,” she said.
“GMA” seized the reins in the early-bird hours after Ben Sherwood, then the new ABC News president, and others decided the format had become outdated. “It was due a reinvention,” explains James Goldston, who succeeded Sherwood as the news unit’s chief. The show’s second hour was reconfigured, and “GMA” soon had a faster pace and more stories.
“I had come aboard as a general assignment correspondent in the late ’90s, and became a full-time member of the family in 2002, so you take 10, 12 years to be No. 1? It was, ‘Wow,’ ” Roberts recalls. “It was an event.”
NBC is banking on the combination of a re-signed Lauer and his chemistry with Guthrie — and their skill in interviewing everyone from Pippa Middleton to John Kerry to Mick Jagger — to get the show back to top-dog status. ABC, meanwhile, has added to “GMA’s” ranks genial former NFL star Michael Strahan, who co-anchors the syndicated “Live With Kelly and Michael.”
The network is also countering the perception that “GMA” leans toward the silly and the salacious, naming one of its standard-bearers, Stephanopoulos, chief anchor of ABC News, rather than David Muir, who is inheriting the network’s evening newscast from Diane Sawyer. That means the one-time White House adviser is the face ABC viewers see nearly every time a crisis breaks out around the world, even as he rises early every day for “GMA.”
Lauer and Guthrie may stand at “Today’s” center, but the spotlight these days is on the broader crew. Morales and meteorologist Al Roker sit alongside the two co-hosts; Carson Daly, the ubiquitous personality brought onboard to weave social-media elements into the program, fills in just as much as anyone else; and Willie Geist and Tamron Hall, featured in the show’s 9 a.m. hour, appear regularly during its start.
The widened focus comes as the result of an in-process overhaul that sounds like something Procter & Gamble might do when sales decline for a detergent or toothpaste. NBC determined “Today” lost just 10% of its viewers to “GMA,” with the rest scattering across TV, Turness recounts. To get them back, the network interviewed hundreds of viewers, loyal and lapsed, and asked what it was that they wanted in the morning. The answer was, first and foremost, “substance.” Injecting more of that — and giving viewers a broader team to maintain their interest — Turness determined, “would place us back in the heartland of morning TV.”
Lauer decided to sign up for another term — he declined to comment on whether it would last two years or more — because of the show’s reboot. Keeping the veteran presence onboard the show was imperative, Turness says. “If he left, we would be in a very different place” she adds. “He is key to the future.”
On a sign hanging next to Nash’s office on the third floor of NBC’s headquarters reads a new “Today” mission statement that starts, “We are a news show.” That sentiment, says Lauer, helps keep “Today” from drifting away from viewer expectations.
“I’ll be blunt. I think we lost our way a little bit a while ago,” Lauer says during an interview alongside Guthrie in his dressing room. He talks of picking up his kids from school on Friday afternoons, only to hear from parents who would tell him they had to turn off the TV because of the lurid bent of certain stories, especially in the show’s second half hour. Now, he says, “one of the things we have been really good about doing over the past year or year and a half is paying less attention to what (other networks) do, and more attention to what we want to be doing, what we want to be known for.”
For Guthrie, too, “Today” must offer more than eye-grabbing headlines. “You can choose to do something that’s dark and tabloidy, or you can choose something enterprising, interesting, fascinating, educational,” she says. “And we have made that shift.”
“Today” still has its share of outdoor concerts and lighthearted moments. How could it not? It’s a morning show, not “60 Minutes.” That dichotomy creates an entity that is more difficult to manage than “GMA,” which is more homogeneous in its approach, says Allen Adamson, chairman of North America operations of branding consultant Landor Associates: “It’s easier to manage a single-minded brand than it is to manage a brand with two personalities,” he maintains. Besides, there are many other rivals, each with its own distinct focus, ranging from “CBS This Morning” to MSNBC political gabfest “Morning Joe.”
“Today’s” efforts come as “GMA” has made strides with a team that tends to get more personal on camera. As part of its coverage of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, for instance, “GMA” featured a segment about how to talk to children about the event, which prompted the hosts to speak of their own families. When meteorologist Ginger Zee returned from her honeymoon in June, “GMA” shot her getting out of a convertible outside the show’s Times Square studio, kissing her new husband and walking in to work. Says Nash, “We probably wouldn’t do that, but if that’s the decision they make, more power to them.”
It’s just this sort of thing that has given “GMA” exactly that: more power. Viewers have watched as Roberts revealed her diagnosis of myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood marrow disease; and as Robach learned she had breast cancer after doing a segment about mammograms on the show. “It’s every person’s decision about what to share, but I don’t think we had another choice on some of these,” Cibrowski says. After all, the anchors would have to leave the program for medical treatment.
Robach is comfortable sharing such intimate information with viewers, so long as it delivers a greater message about important topics. Adds Roberts: “There’s been no master plan. Whatever was going on in my personal life — the death of my parents, (news about) my hometown, my health, my girlfriend, all that — I’ve decided to share just what I feel is right. And I think that is why, knock on wood, for the most part, it’s been so well-received.”
Lauer and Guthrie are more ambivalent about moving in that direction — though recently “Today” ran a seven-minute segment depicting Guthrie’s husband learning how to swaddle and change a newborn baby. While both anchors at the NBC show express support for their rivals (the teams on both broadcasts are friendlier than one might suspect), they also want to keep focus on the news, not themselves. “The viewers become very interested in (personal) stories because there’s something special about morning television, and people feel connected to you,” Guthrie says. “I don’t think we are looking in any way to try to match that.”
Ratings aren’t the only thing at stake. For Disney and Comcast, the respective owners of ABC and NBC, “Good Morning America” and “Today” are essential to the profitability of each network division, says media analyst Michael Nathanson. Consider this: the weekday and weekend versions of “Today” snared more than $630 million in ad revenue last year, according to data from tracking firm Kantar, while “GMA,” which airs fewer hours, notched around $332 million.
The shows represent a massive block of live content — with four hours of programming Monday through Friday. “Today” serves up more hours each week than there are in Fox’s entire primetime schedule. Perhaps most important, the live format and the sense of routine that morning TV engenders is in sharp contrast to the growth of on-demand viewing in other dayparts.
The fall from No. 1 appears to have crimped “Today’s” advertising base. While the show’s overall revenue increased in 2012, ad revs for the first two hours of “Today,” where the bulk of its sponsor spending lies, declined in 2013 — the first dip since 2009, according to Kantar. Ad revenue for those two hours grew just 2.6% in 2012, and slipped 0.3% in 2013. Meanwhile, “GMA’s” sponsored coin improved nearly 7% in 2012, and almost 10% in 2013. NBC News says ad revenue for the first two hours of “Today” rose in 2013, and it expects record ad sales for the entire franchise in 2014.
Both programs give Comcast and Disney a stake in the ground in their efforts to capture a new generation of video-consuming millennials: Fans will follow Roberts or Lauer almost anywhere, whether it’s to Greenland or to the smartphone. The shows need to focus increasingly on content designed and edited for mobile consumption — clips that can easily be shared by users on those devices, says Christopher Vollmer, who leads the media and entertainment practice at Strategy&, a business consultant. That means employing anchors who are even more deeply connected with viewers than, say, evening-news regulars like NBC’s Brian Williams or CBS’ Scott Pelley.
Just as Coke and Pepsi sell a similar fizzy brown liquid, so too are “GMA” and “Today” pouring from the same pot of coffee into different mugs. “GMA” can be equally as serious as “Today” in its first hour when news warrants. For every trip that “Today’s” Guthrie makes to interview Secretary of State Kerry, there is a sojourn by “GMA’s” Robach to Nigeria to explore the plight of captive schoolgirls. For every “GMA” report on two sisters who survive being knocked off their paddleboards and drifting out to sea, there is a “Today” interview with a young man who shed 550 pounds. “GMA” recently featured a contest among local firefighting squads; after Lauer was doused in ice water on a charity dare from golfer Greg Norman, “Today” dispatched Guthrie and Lauer to Howard Stern’s XM Satellite Radio show to get the shock jock to take Lauer’s challenge.
“I know we’re doing something right,” says “Today’s” Roker, “because two or three months later, we’ll see it on ‘GMA.’ We have our ‘Orange Room,’ and oh my gosh, look at that, they’ve got a ‘Social Square’! ” One could argue that “GMA” began showing the entire on-air team on camera well before “Today” took a similar approach.
In the studios of both shows, producers frantically try to lay tracks for the massive trains already in motion. “Gotta go!” one producer yells to Roberts as she spends more time than the control room would like interviewing Jason Segel one morning. “Savannah to Andrea!” barks a director at “Today” when the show must rework its opening lineup to accommodate a reporter on scene at the site of the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, resulting in Guthrie handling an interview with veteran NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell. The main difference behind the scenes? Cibrowski tends to sit during the broadcast; Nash often stands.
The distinctions are to be found in the packaging, not the preparation. “I do think we are a little more substantive,” Nash says. “If you asked most people, they would say we are a little more focused on the news than is ‘Good Morning America.’ ”
Roberts scoffs at that notion. “You pick up a newspaper or pick up a magazine — there are fun articles and there are heavy sections, and we are no different. I think you get out of us what it is you need.”
When you wake up tomorrow morning and switch on your favorite program, the battle will be raging, though you won’t hear swords being drawn or pistols being loaded. “Some days are closer than others,” Robach says. “I think we all bring our A-game, and that’s probably how it will continue.”