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Morning-Show Wars Take a Twist as ‘Today’ Trumps ‘GMA’ in Total Viewers

It’s not a good morning at ABC.

NBC’s “Today” claimed Thursday that it trumped ABC’s “Good Morning America” in total viewers for the first time in a non-Olympics week since 2012, the latest twist in the scorched-earth battle between the two networks to dominate the morning-news audience and lock in millions in extra advertising dollars.

NBC said”Today” beat “GMA” by the thinnest of margins – just 49,000 viewers overall and 180,000 people between 25 and 54, the demographic most coveted by advertisers in news programming. NBC’s morning program, which has been on the air since 1952, has generally trailed “GMA” in total viewers since the spring of 2012, the result of viewers being turned off by a “Today” turn toward stories of a more tabloid nature and in reaction to an NBC decision in June of that year to remove co-host Ann Curry from the program.

The results have given some TV-news executives pause. NBC said “Today” clobbered “GMA” last Tuesday, March 22, during breaking coverage of the terrorist attacks in Brussels, luring a stunning 693,000 more viewers than “GMA” did on that day. The gap is extraordinary, and a testament to fervent interest in the overseas tragedy. But the normal margins between the shows are much slighter. On Monday, for example, “Today” beat “GMA” by just 53,000 viewers and on Wednesday, it beat the ABC program by 220,000 viewers.

“Due to a reporting error on ABC’s behalf, only a small portion of the show was rated on Tuesday – the numbers are not reflective of the viewership that morning,” said a person familiar with the situation.

Unless the victory is challenged, however, it could stand as a milestone in “Today’s” history — the week the NBC a.m. mainstay came from behind and regained first place from the ABC eggs-and-toast institution.

Behind the scenes, “Today” staffers remain cautiously optimistic, said one person familiar with the program. The war between the two morning shows is far from over, this person said, noting that producers fully anticipate losses to “Good Morning America” over the next few days and weeks. But the numbers, this person said, lend ballast to the theory that offering viewers a stronger dose of hard news in the morning has lent new momentum to the NBC program.

To be sure, both programs have challenges to solve. In the first quarter of 2016, “Today” saw total viewers fall by 3% from the year-earlier period, while “GMA” lost 10%. The daypart is extremely competitive, with Fox News Channel, MSNBC, CNN, CNBC and Fox Business Network also offering morning-news programming. “CBS This Morning” grew viewers by 11% during the first quarter, though it continues to trail both the NBC and ABC programs by a significant margin.

“Today” has put its ABC rival under pressure for weeks, winning the 25-54 crowd for more than 25 weeks. To do so, the program has tried to stand out by owning big news events and testing new ways of presenting them. In recent broadcasts, anchors Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie pushed back hard during an interview with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, and MSNBC broadcasters have appeared on the program after they have notched interviews with various candidates for the nation’s top office.

[Updated, 12:50 PT 3/31]

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