As rival ABC tests new ideas like a live in-studio audience and the appeal of a popular sportscaster at “Good Morning America,” NBC has bet on a familiar face to bring it back to pole position in TV’s ongoing morning-news wars.
Matt Lauer, who has been part of the on-air staff at “Today” for more two decades, will continue to hold forth on the NBC morning mainstay through 2018, according to people with knowledge of the situation. NBC and the anchor signed a new deal as long as half a year ago that is expected to keep him on the program through 2018, these people said. Lauer is said to have agreed to an annual salary of at least $20 million a year, according to one of these people, while another suggested the price tag could be several million dollars higher. The New York Post earlier revealed details of Lauer’s renewed agreement.
Lauer has served at the “Today” desk through one of the most tumultuous times in the show’s history: a 2012 dip in the ratings that allowed ABC’s “GMA” to usurp “Today’s” years-long number-one spot, and, subsequently, a new rise that puts NBC in the lead in terms of the viewers advertisers want most. “Good Morning America” continues to reign as the nation’s most-watched morning program. Now, NBC likely hopes his familiar presence on the program in tandem with co-host Savannah Guthrie will help the network return “Today” to first place overall.
NBC is betting on stability to carry the day. ABC recently added some new wrinkles to “GMA” by introducing Michael Strahan as a full-time co-anchor and having hosts interact with a live audience in the show’s second hour. Meanwhile, CBS’ “CBS This Morning” has made noticeable viewership gains in recent years by maintaining a hard-news focus and avoiding some of the format’s fluffier elements, such as cooking demonstrations and full-time meteorologists. At “Today,” Lauer and Guthrie preside over a mix of both hard stories and softer features, leading the program from a newsy opening to lighter elements that crop up more prominently as the show creeps toward 9 a.m.
“Today” has burst out in the ratings at important moments. For the week of the 2016 presidential election, “Today” snared 25,000 more viewers than “Good Morning America,” and 400,000 more in the advertiser demo. It also beat its rival in both categories on Halloween. During the third quarter, when NBCUniversal broadcast Olympics coverage, “Today” won more viewers overall and more in the demo than its rival, marking the show’s first outright quarterly win since the second quarter of 2012.
But the show faces new challenges, even as it vies with “Good Morning America” for the top-ranked title among sunshine shows. Both programs have gradually been losing audience. Results for TV’s November sweeps period show that “Today” saw a dip of 4% in total viewers and a 6% dip among viewers between 25 and 54, according to data from Nielsen. “Good Morning America” saw total viewers fall 5% and viewers between 25 and 54 fall 7%. “CBS This Morning,” meanwhile, saw its overall viewership rise 8% during the period, while its viewers between 25 and 54 increased 11%.
Lauer and Guthrie are carrying more weight at the program, which in recent months has veered away from a morning-show staple, a wide opening shot of the entire cast of on-air contributors. These days, under NBC News senior vice president Noah Oppenheim and executive producer Don Nash, Lauer and Guthrie open the show immediately and catch viewers up on the big stories of the morning before throwing to the reliable presence of Al Roker or Carson Daly’s social-media updates. Indeed, as part of the effort to make the “Today” opening more focused, producers have eliminated the program’s “news reader” post, most recently occupied by Natalie Morales. The pair have also focused on nabbing exclusive interviews with people caught in intriguing situations that have made the headlines, and, more recently, focused on the nation’s eyebrow-raising election cycle.
Lauer’s new contract would appear to have been in place prior to his hosting a September forum among then-Republican candidate Donald J. Trump and his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. His on-air work came under intense scrutiny in social-media circles, but was defended in a strongly worded memo from NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack. The program drew 14.7 million viewers across NBC and MSNBC, according to Nielsen.
The anchor could draw even more focus over the next several weeks. Guthrie is expected to take some form of maternity leave after giving birth to her second child.