Michael Strahan’s ‘Live’ Exit Just the Latest in Morning Anchor Drama

Morning News Anchor Drama Battle lines
Peter o’toole for Variety

The network morning shows are in the midst of a musical-chairs moment that is as much about positioning for the future as it is about the day-to-day battle for ratings and bragging rights.

ABC set off a shuffle — and a kerfuffle — with news last week that “Live With Kelly and Michael” co-host Michael Strahan would move to “Good Morning America” full-time in the fall. Meanwhile, NBC’s “Today” is mulling shifts in its 9 a.m. anchor team as it looks to see who clicks with whom.

The moves are all part of the ongoing nuclear war in the a.m. between the networks, each eager to conquer the early- and mid-morning crowd. Willie Geist, who co-anchors the 9 a.m. hour of “Today,” was dispatched earlier this month to host a revamped Sunday edition of the program. Even CBS stalwart “Sunday Morning” is facing a generational shift as the network tries to set up a successor to Charles Osgood, who has anchored the program since 2004 and is said to be negotiating his exit. In the process, the TV news units will try to figure out which of their members will, over time, make for successors to mainstays like Matt Lauer and Robin Roberts.

At stake is a growing pot bubbling with advertising dollars. Sponsors spent more than $1.24 billion on network morning talk shows last year, according to Kantar Media — an increase of 10.7% over the $1.12 billion spent in the category in 2014. “Most advertisers buy all three morning-news telecasts, but being ahead of your competition is always the best vantage point and usually translates into a bigger piece of the ad-dollar pie,” said Billie Gold, VP and director of programming research for Amplifi U.S., a media-buying entity that is part of Japan’s Dentsu.

ABC’s surprise move with Strahan is clearly aimed at shoring up “GMA” as it brawls with “Today” to remain No. 1 in the 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. slot — a crown “GMA” won in 2012 after “Today” had enjoyed an unprecedented 16-year winning streak. This season, “Today” has beaten “GMA” in the demo most coveted by advertisers — viewers aged 25 to 54 — for eight months running. For the season to April 15, overall viewership of “GMA” dipped 8% compared with the year-earlier period, while its 25-to-54 crowd fell 13%. (Meanwhile, “CBS This Morning” has gained ground over the past two years with a focus on hard news, though it continues to lag behind its broadcast rivals.)

Sky-High Stakes
The morning TV sector is healthy, with overall ad spending growing
$1.24b Ad dollars spent on network morning talk shows in 2015
10.7% Increase over 2014 ad spend
-13% “Good Morning America” drop in 25-54 viewership over same period last year
-8% “Good Morning America” drop in
overall viewership over same period last year

ABC no doubt hopes Strahan will help tackle “Today,” which could gain fresh momentum in weeks to come: NBCUniversal’s coverage of the Olympics this summer is sure to draw millions of viewers, and could lend the NBC morning stalwart a big boost. “The Olympics have always been a boon to ratings,” said a person familiar with the show. “Today” won’t be shy about trumpeting its connection to the event. On April 27, the “Today” crew will start a countdown, taking to the plaza outside its studio to note that the opening ceremony is just 100 days away.

Perhaps Strahan will slow that Olympics charge. “We got a chance to have Michael a couple of days a week, and now we are looking forward to having him on the team full time,” said Tom Cibrowski, senior VP of ABC News Programs, News Gathering and Special Events, in an interview. Morning-show battles aren’t going away, he added. The programs “bring in a lot of viewers and a lot of eyeballs, and they start the day on the television networks. It’s a very important time period, and for our purposes, we always want to field the strongest team.”

If executives have devised a plan to weave Strahan in and out of the show’s usual flow, Cibrowski wasn’t willing to spill the details.

Could there be more moves in the offing? In TV news circles, there are perennial rumors about whether each side’s team will remain intact. Speculation has suggested that Hoda Kotb might move from her 10 a.m. “Today” perch with Kathie Lee Gifford, while some executives wonder if “GMA” co-anchors Roberts and George Stephanopoulos might seek new avenues. But Gifford and Kotb are expected to stick together “for the foreseeable future,” said the person familiar with “Today.” ABC, meanwhile, remains confident its current crew will soldier on.

Adding fuel to the fire, NBC has started using its morning-show franchise — which airs more hours each week than Fox does in primetime — to spark competitive ventures.  Changes in the 9 a.m. hour of “Today” could result in “Access Hollywood” anchor Billy Bush joining “Today,” and some of the current hosts, who include Geist, Natalie Morales, Al Roker and Tamron Hall, departing.

Of course, the 9 a.m. hour of “Today” in many markets vies with the ABC-produced syndicated program that Strahan will exit in the fall, “Live.” His co-host, Kelly Ripa, let her unhappiness with the decision be known by sitting out the rest of the week on the broadcast, then announcing she would return starting April 26. Her response means ABC has a talent management challenge to keep “Live” vital and to prevent “Today” from making inroads at 9 a.m., where “Live” is generally dominant in major markets.

Such unintended consequences are what keeps TV news executives up at night — and moving anchors around like chess pieces.