At Today Show, What Happens Tomorrow?
Off-camera tensions, tighter ratings race make morning news a battleground
By Steve McClellan -- Broadcasting & Cable, 2/22/2004 7:00:00 PM
The Today show may still be No. 1, but behind the bullet-proof glass of its Rockefeller Center studio, the shop is in turmoil.
"The fear here is, what's happening at Today is the beginning of all the wheels coming off," said one NBC News insider who, like many others at the network, predicts that a shakeup at the flagship morning show is on the way.
The change could start with Tom Touchet. Fairly or not, Today's executive producer has become a target for much of the criticism leveled at the show. The chatter at 30 Rock is that he may soon find himself out of a job or, more likely, suffer a de facto demotion, reporting to an "uber-executive" who watches over the show.
Some inside the network say Katie Couric is leading the charge against Touchet. Remember, she was none too pleased with his predecessor, Jonathan Wald. Today's $13 million-a-year superdiva was widely viewed as orchestrating Wald's demise after 17 months on the job. That's just about as long as Touchet has been there.
Not surprisingly, the party line at Today is that all is "fine, thank you" at NBC's morning-news money machine.
NBC News President Neal Shapiro flatly denies that Touchet is in play. "My guess is, [rumors come from] people who would love to work at NBC News and have pitched themselves for any number of jobs at NBC," he says. "I may have been polite and listened, but I haven't sought out or interviewed anybody for that job."
Through a spokeswoman, Couric issued the following statement: "Tom, Matt [Lauer], and I have a great, creative working partnership, and I think that he is doing a terrific job."
Others tell a different tale, not just about Touchet, but about the whole atmosphere at Today. "There is profound unease and unhappiness at Today," says the NBC News insider, "and it's not like Katie's the sole driver."
Both inside and outside NBC, there's a sense that Today has lost its oomph. In a fractured TV universe, maybe no show sets the news agenda, but Today used to dominate the race to get the "get." Too often, though, the No. 1 show comes up short.
Who got Pete Rose and Mel Gibson when they were each Topic A? ABC's Good Morning America. After Howard Dean's wild concession speech, who got Dean and his wife to offer on-air contrition? GMA again.
"What's so demoralizing is that the first half-hour used to be must-see TV for Washington powerbrokers," says the NBC insider. "Now there's a sense that it's just not mandatory viewing anymore."
Shapiro says that is bunk. "Our political coverage has been the best of any morning program both in quantity and in quality."
Still, morale problems at Today have become public. The New York Daily News reported last week that NBC News hired Jim Vidakovich, a management guru and ex-TV producer, to help bolster spirits and communication among the staff. "You don't bring in somebody like Vidakovich if everything is hunky-dory," says the NBC insider.
Season to date, viewership is up 5% for morning news altogether, about 750,0000 viewers, but Today isn't getting its share. Both ABC's Good Morning America and CBS's once irrelevant The Early Show have added about 300,000 each—or twice as many new viewers this season as Today.
The stakes are huge. Today is the engine that drives the NBC News division financially, with estimated 2003 revenues of $497 million, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus.
GMA revenues grew at a faster clip last year: 23% to $357 million, according to Nielsen. Today's revenue growth was 12%. CBS's The Early Show was up 5% over the same period to $145 million.
Of course, there are some powerful eyes watching the drama: Jeff Zucker, now NBC president of Entertainment, News and Cable Group, earned his stripes as the executive producer who took Today to stratospheric heights from 1994 to 2000, when he was just in his mid 20s. "He's not happy with what's going on there," says an NBC source. "Remember, Zucker runs the world at NBC now."
Was Zucker's Today departure the beginning of the decline?
"The thing that hurt Today, is the show's expansion to three hours," says Andrew Tyndall, publisher of The Tyndall Report, a newsletter that tracks the TV news. "They're squeezing blood out of a stone. It's dilution."
Roiling waters at Today does not mean calm seas at GMA. The word in the corridors is that tension between executive producer Shelley Ross and 60-year-old Charles Gibson is intense enough that he may bolt after his contract expires in June. Meanwhile, ABC is close to extending Ross's contract for another three years. ABC insiders say the relationship between her and Gibson is hardly warm and fuzzy. Her expected new deal may signal Gibson's departure from GMA at season's end. Still, word from top ABC News management is that "Gibson will be at the show for the long haul.
Even so, the likelihood that Ross is staying put (rumors two weeks ago had her moving to NBC) adds to the perception of GMA as a show on the move, with Today execs looking anxiously over their shoulders.
Not surprisingly, the president of NBC News denies any such thing. "You need an incredibly strong rear-view mirror to see that far back," sniffs Shapiro. Understandably, he is quick to point out that Today still has a 40% lead over GMA among adults 25-54, season to date, while NBC research shows that in the first quarter, Today's total-viewer growth is outpacing Gibson's and Diane Sawyer's show at ABC. In addition, Today is still tops in the ratings, with a total audience lead over second place GMA of more than 1.3 million viewers.
But that's not the whole story.
ABC Network Television President Alex Wallau boasted at a Disney investor conference two weeks ago that the ratings gap between GMA and Today is now the smallest it has been in eight years. The Nielsen numbers show that among adults 25-54, the key news demo, Today still leads GMA by eight-tenths of a rating, point season to date. Over the past year, GMA has risen in that demo by 11%, while Today has grown 4%. And what Wallau didn't mention at the big money confab is that GMA has grown even though ABC has been a train wreck in prime time, its audience among the 18-49 crowd dropping by double digits.
And at CBS, even The Early Show, the perennial dog in the morning race, is showing signs of life. Its audience is up 10% and has surpassed the 3 million mark, the best season-to-date performance in a decade. A few weeks ago, boosted by an appearance by Survivor cast members, the program almost hit 4 million viewers. The Early Show has grown the most in the key demo, 33% among adults 25-54.
CBS News president Andrew Heyward says, "There are no second-class citizens" in the morning-news battle anymore."
Not a bad analysis, but the morning, for now, is still a two-horse derby, especially with the fissures at Today. Says the NBC News insider, "Frankly, there are a lot of people here who are surprised GMA hasn't closed the gap a whole lot more."
|What's at Stake Ad revenues at the Big Three's morning news shows|
|Source: Nielsen Monitor Plus
|CBS Early Show||$139,339,369||$145,776,846||+5%|
|Good Morning America||$290,385,521||$357,187,820||+23%|
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