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New ‘Today’ Team Gears Up for Olympic Challenge in Morning-News Wars

Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb are going to South Korea to help “Today” cover the Winter Olympics. They are in the midst of a gold-medal task all their own.

NBCUniversal’s mammoth coverage of the Games from PyeongChang, South Korea, typically lends a ratings boost to the NBC morning-show franchise that Kotb and Guthrie co-anchor each weekday. And their journey comes at a time when the show has eked out the thinnest of margins against its main rival, ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Season to date as of Feb. 2, the NBC program leads its competitor by just 8,000 viewers.

“We are just putting on the best show we can every single day,” says Guthrie in an interview. “If you try to look at what the other show is doing, you drive yourself crazy.”

The duo may go crazy anyway. NBCUniversal will broadcast more than 2,400 hours of Olympics coverage across its networks and digital outlets, and “Today” will have ample opportunity to tie itself to what is typically one of TV’s most-watched events. Guthrie and Kotb will be joined by NBC News’ Al Roker, Natalie Morales, Willie Geist, Craig Melvin and Dylan Dreyer. This is Kotb’s fifth Olympics and Guthrie’s third. Because of the time difference, U.S. morning viewers will see Kotb and Guthrie holding forth at about 9 p.m. in PyeongChang.

“They are flipping their days,” explains Libby Leist, the show’s newly-christened executive producer.”It’s a whole different vibe for the show.”

Look for the co-anchors to spend time with various athletes and their families – including being with parents as their kids compete. “It may be one of the best experiences on earth,” says Kotb. “You know they’ve worked their whole lives, and the parents have helped drive it. It comes down to like, a minute and thirty seconds, and we get to sit with the folks that made it happen.”

The pair has been charged with leading “Today” into a new era that, at least for now, has looked promising. Audiences flocked to the program in the weeks after audiences were stunned by the revelation that Matt Lauer, a regular presence on “Today” for more than 20 years, had been fired. NBC cited “inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace,”and NBC News has said it is investigating how it handled the matter.

“It’s not a secret that the show has going through a transition, and those transitions can be really difficult,” says Guthrie, who gives much credit to “Today” staff and producers. “We all love this show and we feel like we are just here momentarily to care for it. I think it’s in great shape.”

“Today” has long trumped “GMA” in the audience measure that drives the TV business. It routinely captures the most viewers that advertisers in news programming covet, people between 25 and 54. But for nearly two months, the show also won the most viewers overall.

In recent weeks, “GMA” has fought back. For the five days ended February 2, “GMA” lured an average of 4.32 million viewers, according to Nielsen, compared with “Today’s” 4.23 million and “CBS This Morning’s” 3.6 million. “GMA” attracted the most viewers in each of the four broadcasts Monday through Thursday last week – the first time it has been able to do so in 11 weeks.

Leist has taken oversight of the program at a particularly frenzied time for morning TV. Some viewers are gravitating to cable counterparts that offer unvarnished exchanges between hosts and guests. And all the broadcast networks have placed new focus on morning programs in recent years – a concerted effort to catch viewers who haven’t already been staring at smartphones for hours, and the advertising dollars that hopefully follow them. The first two hours of “Today” are said to capture more than $500 million in advertising per year, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending. “Good Morning America”notched more than $400 million in 2016.

“We are a news show and we are sticking to that mission,” said Leist, who rose through the NBC News ranks based on her work in the NBCUniversal unit’s Washington bureau and is the first female executive producer to lead the first two hours of the show. “We want to have a particular emphasis on booking the best guests, the most newsworthy guests, and we are all going to focus on that.” Viewers will want to follow Guthrie and Kotb, who “have huge hearts, and they are hilarious” in addition to being eager to follow the news cycle.

Kotb says her work on the show’s first two hours has allowed her to “work with muscles I used to work with” during her time on “Dateline,” and “I’m getting that back up.” She expects to continue co-anchoring the fourth hour of “Today” at 10 a.m. with Kathie Lee Gifford. “It’s almost like breathing,” she said. Indeed, in joint interviews, the two have been known to finish each other’s sentences. “It doesn’t feel like another show.”

Whether they are at the Olympics or interviewing someone at the center of a cycle increasingly driven by social-media frenzy, the pair expect to press forward, says Guthrie: “We are just focused on doing a job, and looking to have great stories to tell.”

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