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TV’s Big Breakfast Bet: Why Morning-News Executives Keep Getting Boosts

Noah Oppenheim

Morning TV is helping a number of TV executives rise and shine.

The nation’s biggest TV companies have in recent months placed a lot of weight on their ability to generate growth in morning-habit TV like “Today,” “CBS This Morning” and “Good Morning America” – and rewarded those producers who can notch ratings gains with broader responsibilities.

NBCUniversal on Tuesday elevated Noah Oppenheim, who has been with NBC News as a senior vice president overseeing the company’s many hours of “Today” broadcasts, to the head of NBC News. Oppenheim’s tenure with the company – his second – hasn’t been long (he joined in 2015), but what he has done during it is significant. His focus on streamlining “Today” and giving it a more streamlined feel in its first hour has put the show back on top in the advertiser-coveted demographic after ABC’s “Good Morning America” usurped that position in 2012.

“He has honed the broadcast, and audiences have rewarded us for it,” said Andrew Lack, chairman of the NBC News Group, in a memo to staffers sent Tuesday.

In some weeks, the morning programs can seem like wallpaper – always there when you turn on the TV at 7 a.m. In reality, they drive hundreds of millions of dollars in ad revenue into the coffers of Comcast Corp., CBS Corp. and Disney. They also provide a bigger spine of programming than many primetime shows, which take up a mere thirty minutes or an hour. Consider that NBC broadcasts more hours of “Today” during a seven-day period than Fox does in primetime. Or that there are more hours of “Good Morning America” or “CBS This Morning” broadcast each week than there are original hours of programming on TV’s CW network.

Little wonder that the executive who can manage the content and flow on a morning-news program – not to mention the personalities who deliver the information – is seen as someone who might be worth considering for a bigger job.

Ben Sherwood, currently co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of the ABC Television Group, rose to broader notice at the company as president of ABC News during the moment when “Good Morning America” surged ahead of “Today” – the first time it has done so in many years. “GMA” has faced new challenges from its rival, but it remains American’s most-watched morning-news program.

Chris Licht’s profile grew as one of the creators of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” and then as an architect of a revamped “CBS This Morning.” His hard-news take on A.M. TV resounded – no on-set meteorologist, no cooking segments – and made CBS more of a player with the eggs-and-coffee crowd than it has been in decades.

In April of last year, Licht was named showrunner of CBS’ “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” and set about devising a tighter focus for the program, which was previously being run by the host. In recent months, the show has become known for offering a newsy but humorous take on America in the Trump era and its overall viewership in the last two weeks has increased. If Licht makes “Late Show” more competitive in the long run, he will have helped CBS fight its way more doggedly in two different dayparts.

There is precedent for a morning boost to a TV career. Jeff Zucker was just 26 years old when he was named executive producer of “Today” in 1992, and helped set it on a course to dominate the ratings for more than a decade and a half. In 2000, he became president of NBC Entertainment. By 2007, he was named CEO of NBCUniversal and today has gained attention for breathing new life into Time Warner’s CNN Worldwide, where he is president.

There may be other factors in the executives’ rise that extend beyond the early part of the day. Zucker, Sherwood and Oppenheim are all graduates of Harvard.