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‘Today’ Tests the Non-Traditional With Female Anchor Lineup

Tomorrow has come to “Today.”

As the nation’s longest-running morning program, the NBC A.M. show has served for decades as the most traditional example in the genre. Yes, “Today” launched in 1952 with the odd-couple lineup of Dave Garroway and a chimpanzee, J. Fred Muggs, but since that time, it has typically been anchored by some of the best-known and most-scrutinized him-and-her anchor teams in the business. Katie Couric and Matt Lauer. Jane Pauley and Bryant Gumbel. Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters.

Starting today, “Today” is recalibrating the formula. Hoda Kotb has been named co-anchor alongside Savannah Guthrie, making the show the only current morning program to have an official lineup anchored by women. What’s more, the show’s first two hours are followed by two more led by women: Megyn Kelly at 9 a.m. and Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford at 10.

The maneuver has been guided in part by unavoidable circumstance. Like “Today,” CBS’ “CBS This Morning” has been grappling with the surprise ouster of a well-known anchor. Kotb replaces Matt Lauer, who was fired by NBC News for what it said was inappropriate behavior at work. The CBS program has relied more heavily in recent weeks on regulars Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell in the wake of the departure of Charlie Rose, who was also accused of sexual harassment both inside and out of CBS News. CBS is expected to finalize a new lineup for its morning program in days to come, according to a person familiar with the matter, though it’s not immediately clear who might join the current team. Vladimir Duthiers and Bianna Golodryga have been among those filling in for Rose.

For now, at least, “Today” enjoys a point of distinction. ABC rival “Good Morning America” relies on a trio of lead anchors – George Stephanopoulos, Robin Roberts and Michael Strahan, who are supplemented by Lara Spencer in the show’s second hour as well as Amy Robach and Ginger Zee. MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” would simply not be what it is without the interplay between hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski – who are engaged to be married – as well as Willie Geist. Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota mix it up on CNN’s “New Day.” And Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends,” the show seemingly favored most by President Trump, depends on Steve Doocy, Brian Kilmeade and Ainsley Earhardt.

Morning programs have long embraced “that sort of dynamic of having a male and a female,” said Ben Bogardus, an assistant professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. “Society may have moved beyond that at this point.”

Indeed, the audience seemed ready to move past the norm in the last decade. Between June 2006 and September 2009, Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts co-anchored “GMA” on ABC. Separately, Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill led PBS’ “NewsHour” between August 2013 and October 2016 – the only all-female anchor team of an evening newscast on broadcast TV.

Indeed, given that morning programs tend to attract an audience that is more female than male, it’s worth asking why a female-anchored morning lineup is still regarded as a curiosity rather than a norm. “News by its nature doesn’t like to experiment with new things, since ratings are so important,” said Bogardus. “An experiment could fail. They just go with the tried and true.”

Both NBC and CBS have had no choice but to tinker. Lauer’s and Rose’s positions on the networks’ programs were untenable. In NBC’s case, Kotb’s presence has accompanied a viewership surge. NBC’s “Today” has long won the most viewers coveted by advertisers in news programming – people between 25 and 54 – but for the past four weeks, “Today” has also won the most viewers overall, defeating “Good Morning America” in that category. “None of this was planned, obviously,” said Guthrie in remarks delivered to the NBCUniversal entertainment program “Extra.” She added: “when we all saw how much it worked and how good it felt and how we hope viewers like this pairing, too, it was kind of a no-brainer: Of course we want to keep it going.”

“Today’s” lead over its rival has narrowed in recent weeks, and holiday viewing of the programs can be scattered. A truer picture of how viewers regard each program after the anchor switch is not likely to emerge until later in the year -after NBCUniversal broadcasts hours of Winter Olympics games that usually involve “Today” to a large degree.

In the future, said Bogardus, the journalism professor, TV-news outlets may consider gender less, and instead place more emphasis on the expertise different anchors can bring to the morning table. “Personality more than gender,” he added, is likely to carry greater weight.

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