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‘Today,’ ‘Good Morning America’ Slug It Out in New Battle

Broadcast TV’s battle for morning viewers is reaching a new extreme.

Since mid-2012, ABC’s “Good Morning America” has largely held the distinction of being TV’s most-watched morning-news program. It’s not the most important credit in the business, where NBC’s “Today” has long dominated the sunrise shows among the audience Madison Avenue wants the most, people between 25 and 54. But the networks use the most-viewed measure to brag about whose show matters more in the A.M. And it can help woo audiences as well as in the effort to book newsmakers and celebrities.

In recent weeks, the dynamic has appeared to be on the cusp of change.

For seven consecutive weeks, “Today” has been TV’s most-viewed morning program (“GMA” won the most recent week due to some ratings technicalities). And season to date, it is leading its ABC rival in total viewers by the slimmest of margins – just 16,000 viewers. While “GMA” took back the most-viewed honor for last week’s run of shows, there is a palpable sense among TV executives that neither program has a lock on the most-viewed title.

What’s more, “Today” could be poised for a new boost. Starting February 8, NBCUniversal will devote more than 2,000 hours to its broadcast of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea – an event that usually boosts “Today” ratings.

Producers at “GMA” are prepared to go up against the Olympics, which will feature “Today” broadcasting from the event, according to a person familiar with the matter. But no one could have prepared for the recent whirlwind that reshaped the NBC program over the course of just a few days.

Since Matt Lauer was ousted in late November from the co-anchor duties he held on “Today” for more than two decades, the NBC program has experienced a kind of momentum it hasn’t had in years. Audiences have edged toward the new team of Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb – the first all-female lead anchor team to hold down the show’s flagship first two hours in its 66-year history, and NBC has begun to dispatch the duo to promote themselves in venues like Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show.”

At “Today,” no one thinks victory is imminent or even certain, according to a person familiar with the show. Instead, staffers are focused intently on doing what’s right for the program.

The two rivals must also contend with “CBS This Morning,” which also has a new anchor. John Dickerson has replaced Charlie Rose, who, like Lauer, was dismissed after allegations of sexual harassment were made public. And then there is the growing challenge of cable counterparts like Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends,” MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and CNN’s “New Day.” Each has seen viewers between 25 and 54 grow in recent months.

But executives responsible for both programs know beating the other is essential for survival. Millions of dollars are at stake. NBC’s “Today” took in nearly $508.8 million in ad revenue in 2016, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending. ABC’s “Good Morning America” secured approximately $401.9 million in the same period.

ABC News and NBC News declined to make executives and producers available to discuss either program.

Both shows have made significant changes over the past two years, but none as radical as the ABC program. “GMA” now brings a live audience into the studio for its second hour, where Lara Spencer figures prominently. The show opens with a longer segment devoted more strongly to hard news. And Michael Strahan – not a traditional choice for the role – is one of the program’s three main co-anchors, sitting alongside Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos.

“Today” shed its longtime newsreader role after Natalie Morales moved to work on “Access Hollywood.” The program also put more of a focus on news in its opening half hour, with more emphasis on the two main co-anchors and less of a presence in the first hour of the “Orange Room,” where Carson Daly highlights popular social-media memes and less emphasis on shots of the crowd that gathers regularly outside the “Today” studio at NBC’s 30 Rockefeller Center headquarters.

No one can be sure which show will ultimately prevail, if they’ll run neck and neck for the next several months, or if another rival will draw viewers to a new fold. There’s only one thing that’s certain in morning TV – the sun will rise tomorrow. Which means someone needs to be in place for another broadcast.

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