Under the right circumstances, NBC might want to consider changing the name of its morning franchise from “Today” to “Nearly All Day.”
NBC News has considered the prospect of creating a fifth hour of “Today” on weekdays, according to two people familiar with the matter, the latest nod to the growing spotlight many broadcast networks are giving to news programming across their schedules as more consumers watch scripted programs at times of their own choosing.
“We like serving our audience on any given day of the week. There’s enough going on to fill 24 hours of television,” said Noah Oppenheim, president of NBC News, in an interview. When asked what slot a new hour of “Today,” might fill, he only suggested that “I don’t think it would be earlier” than the 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. block that currently supports NBC’s daytime schedule. But he cautioned: “There are no imminent plans for it,” and added, “I don’t want to overstate the likelihood of it happening.”
The 7 a.m to 9 a.m. hours have long been the most important in morning TV, but all three broadcast networks with national morning programs have given new consideration in recent months to injecting other hours with their unique early-day blend.
ABC News recently expanded “Good Morning America” on Saturdays to two hours and in 2018 launched a third weekday hour in the early afternoon with Michael Strahan and Sara Haines (Keke Palmer was added in 2019). CBS News retooled the Saturday edition of “CBS This Morning” by adding Jeff Glor to the anchor desk last year and has actively worked to create primetime specials with morning co-anchor Gayle King. Now, CBS News President Susan Zirinsky sees a chance to bring her division’s work to new areas, particularly some of the Viacom cable networks that are now part of the merged ViacomCBS. “I can’t give away my ideas that I’m bringing to Viacom, but several of them could involve our morning news talent,” she says in an interview.
NBC News, meanwhile, has retooled its entire suite of “Today” programs. The 9 a.m. hour is co-anchored by Al Roker. Sheinelle Jones, Craig Melvin and Dylan Dreyer. Saturday’s “Today” broadcast now features two Washington correspondents, Peter Alexander and Kristen Welker. Willie Geist’s “Sunday Today” has been crafted to compete with “CBS Sunday Morning,” And NBC News recently announced that the 10 a.m. hour of “Today,” led by Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush Hager, would incorporate a live studio audience twice a week starting in February.
“I think we are always looking for ways to extend the brand and our talent,” says Oppenheim.
All three networks have proven more willing to turn over their daytime schedules to their news divisions for events of national import. In recent years, broadcast networks have skipped a day’s worth of soap operas and syndicated fare in favor of televising Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate hearing; the first total solar eclipse visible in America in 38 years; and, more recently, the U.S. House of Representatives’ impeachment hearings.
“We are in a moment of history for the country,” says Zirinsky. “We are not fighting with the west coast about getting on.”
The moves come as TV networks work to find new formats to keep viewers tuning in despite the growing number of streaming-video options they have available at the touch of a button. At ABC owner Walt Disney, Dana Walden, chairwoman of Disney Television Studios and ABC Entertainment, and Karey Burke, president of ABC Entertainment, “have been very clear about their strategy for ABC, which is they want more live and they want more event programming,” says James Goldston, president of ABC News, in an interview. “I think what we do in news is obviously always live and it’s an event every moment of every day.”
The morning shows have room to expand, suggests Scott Carlin, executive vice president of global media and entertainment at Magid, a TV-industry consultant. At a time when news holds more viewers’ interest, there is reason to eliminate the costs inherent in syndicating a daytime program or investing in more talent for a talk show. The news divisions are already geared up to fill time.. “The costs of expanding by an hour are really insignificant,” he says. Broadcast executives are saying, “’We’ve got the infrastructure. We have all these talented people. The news cycle doesn’t end at 9 a.m. Why don’t we extend it out?’” Extensions of venerable morning shows are also often easier to sell to advertisers, who understand the morning-show brands much more readily than they might a new concept.
Besides, cable competitors have begun to spread out in the morning. Both CNN’s “New Day” and Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends” take up three hours each weekday and also boast weekend editions. Fox News, MSNBC and CNN all offer early-bird options as well that start well before their flagship a.m. programs come on the air.
The broadcast networks can’t simply steamroll over the rest of the schedule. Affiliates have control over some late-morning and afternoon hours, and clawing back any of that time could pose a challenge.
But ABC News’ Goldston notes the new Saturday hour of “GMA” “is already past 70% of coverage [in the U.S.] and heading to full national coverage in its first year, which is a huge achievement.”
There can also be growing pains. ABC’s early-afternoon hour of “GMA” was retooled and its early ratings suffered in comparison to “The Chew,” the program it replaced. But Goldston says ABC News sees new momentum. After adding Palmer, the show has “found its voice. It’s finding its audience,” he says. “We feel very confident about that show going forward. It is really finding its feet. We are extremely bullish on its future.”
New opportunities for news programs are surfacing week by week. ABC and ESPN on Sunday jointly broadcast a primetime special about Kobe Bryant, anchored by Robin Roberts and Michael Strahan of ABC News and Tom Rinaldi of ESPN. “Dana and Karey agreed to put that special on probably five minutes after I asked them about the possibility, which is great,” says Goldston.
NBC has proven willing to cede ground to “Today” in the past. In 2007, the network canceled the soap opera “Passions” and replaced it with the fourth hour of “Today.” That program became a stalwart under co-hosts Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb, and recently saw its ratings lift after Kotb and her new co-host, Jenna Bush Hager, reunited after each took a maternity leave in 2019.
“People like the kind of content we produce. They love the ‘Today’ brand. There is no better team when it comes to producing this kind of show,” says Oppenheim. “So, if there ever was an opportunity where the network came to us and said, ‘There’s real estate available,’ I think the ‘Today’ team would be perfect.”