As ‘GMA,’ ‘Today’ Battle, Rivals Are Gaining Ground

Analysis: Something funny happened on the way to the big showdown between ABC's "Good Morning America" and NBC's "Today" - both are fighting to gain viewers while rivals boost audience.

Good Morning America vs Today Show
Courtesy oa ABC/NBC

When Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos opened “Good Morning America” Tuesday, they had compelling stories to tell: Ginger Zee, the show’s meteorologist who is gaining attention for competing on “Dancing with the Stars,” has pushed through despite an injury. And there were updates on the recent crash of EgyptAir MS804. It’s the sort of mix of hard news and celebrity hoopla that has made the program the most-watched morning show in America.

And yet, fewer of the people who matter are watching “GMA” these days – and the same holds true of its arch-rival, NBC’s “Today.”

The two sunny-side programs have been locked in a no-holds-barred death match for the better part of three years, with the NBC show gaining back ground after being usurped by its nemesis in the ratings in 2012. Now, just as “Today” seems poised to swipe “GMA’s” title as the most-watched morning program in the United States, a new front in has opened in TV’s morning wars.

Both shows have both lost viewers, while “CBS This Morning” and cable-news rivals have gained them, according to data from Nielsen. To be sure, none of the smaller competitors has the reach of either of the two big morning programs. Yet their surges suggest the ceaseless splintering of morning audiences by shows built around audience niches – business-news and political discussion among them – has helped wear away at the duo’ s A.M. dominance.

“Audiences have many options for getting connected to information in the morning, and these morning shows appear now to be part of an earlier era in TV,” said Jeffrey McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, who added: “ ‘GMA’ and ‘Today’ seem determined to appeal to younger and millennial viewers, but those people are just not in the general television audience that much any more, and for sure not in the early morning.”

All the shows jockey for position, but the measure that counts the most is viewers between 25 and 54 – the demographic demanded by advertisers in news programming. “Today,” which has led “GMA” in the category for about nine months, has seen that particular audience fall about 3% season to date as of April 15, to 1.834 million, according to Nielsen. At “GMA,” the fall is more precipitous: 16.7%, to 1.693 million.

Meanwhile, rivals are making strides, albeit off of smaller audience bases. “CBS This Morning” has seen its audience in the category grow 7.3%, to about 1.3 million. At Fox & Friends,” audience in the demo has grown nearly 3.7% to 255,000. At MSNBC, the 25-to-54 audience for “Morning Joe” has risen 54% to 134,000.  And CNN’s “New Day” has notched a rise of about 6.7% to 128,000.

The frenzy of the current campaign for U.S. President could be at the heart of the shifts, suggested Carrie Drinkwater, a senior vice president at MediaHub, a media buying unit of the MullenLowe agency. “People are getting so much information on their social feeds and mobile devices, and probably want a deeper dive on what Donald Trump said or what Bernie Sanders said,” she explained. “If something tragic or something wonderful happens, they may go for a deeper dive at a cable-news network, to get a little more context.”

Recent changes unveiled at both of the big shows suggest producers are eager to hold their ground. Michael Strahan, the former football player who was co-hosting ABC’s syndicated “Live” as well as making appearances on “GMA,” will move to the latter full-time. Producers have also been trying their hand at complicated bits, such as a wedding marathon that was live-streamed over the course of 24 hours and showed couples getting married in various parts of the country.

At “Today,” producers have broken a longstanding tradition by eliminating the show’s “news reader most recently held by Natalie Morales, marking the first time since Tom Brokaw and Jane Pauley anchored the program that “Today” will not have a separate person from the co-hosts delivering headlines. The job was once seen as a stepping stone to become one of the program’s top anchors, and Deborah Norville, Ann Curry and Matt Lauer all spend time in the role. Morales will take up a new post as the show’s “West Coast anchor” and is expected to have as much presence on “Today” as she did in her previous role, according to a person familiar with the situation. The move aims at boosting “Today” appeal in other parts of the country.

In producers’ view, the “news reader” had become “antiquated,” this person said.  When “CBS This Morning” launched in 2012, it did so without a separate news reader or a weather anchor. Within NBC, however, executives do not believe CBS is siphoning away the core “Today” audience, this person added.

Advertisers who depend on “Good Morning America” and “Today” to reach big crowds are not likely at present to shift dollars elsewhere, said Drinkwater, the media buyer. At a time when more viewers are migrating from TV to upstart mobile devices and streaming video, some churn is to be expected, she said, and the “Today” dip in particular does not give her cause for concern. After the current political race ends in November, she expects viewership to stabilize.

The shows aren’t going to wait until that time. At “Today,” plans are afoot for live coverage of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions from  Philadelphia and Cleveland, respectively, as well as of the Rio Olympics, to which parent company NBCUniversal owns the broadcasting rights. Olympics coverage has in the past lent “Today” a ratings boost – which could give the show a hand in its efforts to wrest more viewers and elbow “GMA.” The battle continues.