In Battle for Young Audiences, ‘Today’ Aims to Swipe Fans of Lifestyle Magazines (EXCLUSIVE)

Nathan Congleton

The people who oversee “Today” want to lure new audiences from a decidedly different competitor set. After years spent battling “Good Morning America,” the venerable NBC A.M. news franchise is now eyeing the crowds that flock to consumer publications like People, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping and Vogue.

On Tuesday, the morning-news mainstay will unveil its first digital cover story, an in-depth look at creator and actor Issa Rae that will get exposure not only on its digital site, but on the linear TV show and across its social channels. The belief is that a series of deep-dive stories on newsmakers and cultural figures launched via the show’s digital channels will lure new audiences interested in lifestyle and consumer news.

“We are really trying to age down our audience across the brand,” says Libby Leist, the NBC News senior vice president who oversees all iterations of “Today,” in an interview. She adds: “Digital and social platforms are a great way to do that, a reinvention of the ‘Today’ brand for newer and younger audiences.”

Splashy digital journalism has often served as a vehicle for storied old-media print brands hoping to lure a generation of readers more accustomed to scrolling on a smartphone than turning a glossy page. Now, as the economics of the TV networks’ all-important morning-news programs are in flux, “Today” sees a chance to use the tactic to expand its base.

Rae will be the first of a series of digital-first projects, says Leist, that should start appearing quarterly, all part of a redesign this fall of Today’s digital outlet. “Today” hired Sylvia Obell, an entertainment journalist who has worked with Netflix and Buzzfeed, to examine Rae’s next steps and her new project, “Rap Sh*t. Photographer Ravie B. took exclusive photos. And while the story will appear first on Today.com, Rae will on Tuesday reveal the effort in the “PopStart” segment in the show’s 8 a.m. hour and then appear for a ten-minute interview during the 10 a.m. hour of “Today” anchored by Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush Hager.

The effort serves as a demonstration to celebrities and influencers who might take part in similar ventures at other media outlets of what “Today” can do, says Leist.  “We are definitely in a competitive space, and the advantage we have is the amplification of content across different platforms,” she says. “Nobody else has a broadcast, a digital site, a streaming channel, radio shows from SiriusXM and a podcast and newsletters.”

“Today” accounts for at least 22 hours a week on the NBC broadcast schedule – more hours than are broadcast by Fox in primetime — but the network has in recent months tried to expand beyond even that massive presence. These days, “Today” also encompasses a 24/7 streaming channel that blends new programs featuring show personalities with curated material from the TV show and the recent past.

NBC News launches the effort as its flagship “Today” operations have entered choppier waters. Ad revenue at the first two hours of “Today” fell to about $298.3 million in 2021, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending, down more than 16% from the $357.6 million the show captured in 2020. At primary TV rival “Good Morning America,” ad revenue fell 4% in the same period to about $281 million, compared with $293.6 million in 2020. Meanwhile, CBS’ morning program saw ad revenue fall 40%, to $110.7 million in 2021 from $185.4 million the previous year.

Even so, the morning broadcast shows continue to have value, says Carrie Drinkwater, chief investment officer for Interpublic Group’s MediaHub, a media-buying firm. “News in the early morning has suffered from our ability to get news in an instant” from any number of competing media, she says, but “morning shows have done a great job with getting longer interviews with cultural figures and newsmakers at relevant moments,” bringing in loyal audiences who can be hard to reach all at once through other outlets.

NBC believes “Today” digital outlets have similar power. Today.com published 1,300 original text pieces in June, a new record for the operation. And “Today” has hired more reporters to cover topics of interest to audiences seeking lifestyle content, such as health, parenting, pop culture and trending coverage.

Keeping focus solely on “Today” on TV at a time when digital media is gaining increased traction might be shortsighted. “It’s our job to reach different audiences that won’t turn on the television,” says Leist. “That’s what we are working on through our digital and streaming platforms, reaching audiences that are not necessarily viewing the broadcast but who are interested in the brand from a lifestyle standpoint.”

(Above, pictured: Libby Leist talks with Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb on set of ‘Today’).