Viewers Return to Third Hour of ‘Today’ After Era of Tumult

Courtesy of NBC News

Some of TV’s most popular programs are rooted in a blockbuster creative concept. Others are designed to cater to a unique insight about audience behavior. The current third hour of NBC’s venerable “Today” was spurred by a different factor: sheer necessity.

NBC News didn’t have the luxury of focus groups or a test show when it debuted a retooled 9 a.m. edition of “Today” in October of last year. Megyn Kelly’s much-scrutinized morning hour had been cancelled, and the only thing that stood between the network and dead air (and a slew of advertiser make-goods) was the current “Today” staff.

“It was done very quickly, and without much notice,” says Jackie Levin, the executive producer of the third hour, who remained at its helm after overseeing “Megyn Kelly Today.” The task, she tells Variety, was daunting. The time slot had lost a substantial number of viewers, and the first notion was to put on something more like the program’s first two hours, as opposed to the show tailored to Kelly. “We had a lot of ground to make up,” adds Levin.

Now the third hour’s crew has done what many in the TV business cannot. As most shows continue to lose viewers to digital alternatives, the third hour of “Today” has gained some back.

The program saw the portion of its viewership most desired by advertisers – people between 25 and 54 – grow 3% over its predecessor in its first full year on air, while its overall audience rose 8%. The show has yet to return to the audience levels of the program Kelly replaced, a third hour led by Tamron Hall and Al Roker. In its last full season, that program commanded an average of 2.8 million viewers. But the total audience for the new version rose to about 2.58 million from approximately 2.39 million in the year-earlier period, according to Nielsen.

The dynamic is likely to prompt new questions about why NBC News tinkered with 9 a.m. in the first place. Executives across NBCUniversal will tell you they felt they had to take a shot with Kelly, whose fiery on-screen presence and propensity to surprise were in high demand when she began shopping for a new role as she neared the end of her contract with Fox News Channel in late 2016. Kelly and NBCU parted ways in early 2019, after a broadcast in the fall of 2018 around the topic of wearing blackface on Halloween spurred controversy.

While the first two hours of broadcast TV’s morning programs continue to get the most attention (and advertising dollars), some of the networks have begun to place new emphasis on their extensions. NBC retooled the Sunday edition of “Today” in 2016 with a show built around Willie Geist that features a longform interview. ABC, meanwhile, has launched an early-afternoon hour of “Good Morning America” that features Michael Strahan, Sara Haines and Keke Palmer, as well as a new Saturday hour of the franchise.

Executives give a lot of credit to the four anchors who came to the third hour – even though they already had duties elsewhere. Roker, who continues his weather responsibilities between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., returns to the spot. Sheinelle Jones and Dylan Dreyer maintain their roles on the “Today” weekend broadcasts. And Craig Melvin took on the job even though he is present throughout the show’s first two hours as well as in a weekday hour on MSNBC.

Their camaraderie is key. Viewers don’t want the hard-news presentation they get at 7 a.m., suggests Levin. Instead, they are looking for a looser discussion of the headlines, mixed with some extras. Two segments of the anchors in panel discussion might range from the latest developments on the impeachment inquiry to reactions to a new flavor of Pringles, she says. “We really want people at home to grab their cup of coffee and feel like they are part of the conversation,” Levin says.  The show can also devote longer segments to particular stories and topics, she says, so guests feel like they have more room to delve into a discussion.

In the past year, viewers have seen Roker and Dreyer teach Jones and Melvin how to drive a car with a stick shift, and watched as the anchors visited their hometowns and met their various siblings. But they have also watched Jones interview former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and seen the anchors discuss issues such as parental leave and uterus transplants.

Audience for the third hour of “Today” continues to lag the program that is usually its main competitor in many markets: ABC’s syndicated “Live” with Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest. But it made gains on that show over the last season. And it has shown new strength against other daytime staples like CBS’ “The Talk” and ABC’s “The View.”

Viewer research shows that “people are sticking with the content throughout the hour, from one segment to the next,” says Levin, “and that really is a great testament to what we are doing.“ After launching this version of the show on the fly, Levin adds, “I don’t know that I’m afraid of anything anymore.”