At 60, the Ever-Fresh 'Today' Celebrates Its Morning Reign
Sets and anchors change, but a remarkably consistent formula has kept the show on top of the ratings
By Paige Albiniak -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/16/2012 12:01:00 AM
“Not only with news, which we'll cover like no program has ever covered before, but with music, art, science, sports—all fields of human endeavor we think we'll be able to inform you better about than you've had a chance to be informed before,” said Garroway.
“If you watch the first ever Today show on Hulu.com, you can hear Garroway lay out the thesis of the show,” said Jim Bell, executive producer of Today since April 2005, remarking on the iconic show's anniversary milestone. “So much of that still resonates today, despite what we all know have been momentous shifts in the media landscape. It's unbelievable when [Garroway] talks about the importance of connecting viewers to the world they live in and informing them about any manner of different subjects—arts, culture, entertainment. I think [Today's creators] would be perfectly thrilled to see that what they created 60 years later still has that as its core mission every day.”
Behind the scenes, the key architect of both Today and The Tonight Show—which remain NBC's two most profitable programs to this day—was Sylvester “Pat” Weaver. In 1952, Weaver was NBC's vice president of programming. Weaver, also known for being the father of movie star Sigourney, served as NBC's president from 1953 to 1955.
The show's mission as envisioned by Weaver and Garroway has remained. Famed anchors—Hugh Downs, Barbara Walters, Tom Brokaw, Bryant Gumbel, Katie Couric, to name a few—have come and gone, and through their tenures, the look and feel of the show has changed dramatically.
When Today premiered, TV was still in black and white. Garroway literally held up newspapers and showed viewers the headlines of the day. Black-andwhite photographs were tacked to a bulletin board with subject headings written in ink posted to it.
Behind Garroway was the state of the art “communications center” that NBC put together to gather news for the show, and a ticker tape could be heard in the background. And early on, besides news editor Jim Fleming and announcer Jack Lescoulie, one of Garroway's coanchors was a chimpanzee named J. Fred Muggs.
Since then, Today has gone through several evolutions. The show went to color in 1965, and 1080i high-de! nition in 2006, when NBC also rebuilt its street-level studio at 30 Rockefeller Center in New York City.
Garroway may have called the small newsroom that worked behind him in 1952 the “communications center of the world,” but that's nothing compared to the all-night operation that's now in place at 30 Rock, said Bell. Today anchors, hosts and contributors are all constantly connecting with viewers via Facebook, Twitter and other social media. Anchor Ann Curry's 1 million Twitter followers are frequently mentioned by both her bosses and coworkers. And Today is available 24/7 via its very robust Website at today.msnbc.msn.com, which boasts more unique visitors than any other NBC news program.
“The Today program is a great franchise and it's one of the great brands of America,” said Steve Capus, president of NBC News. “That brand can translate into any one of a number of platforms. Today.com is the strongest part of the NBC News/ MSNBC digital network.”
Today has gone through its ups and downs over the years, but through it all, its ratings have held steady. The only time in its 60-year history that Today has ceded its ratings lead was when Deborah Norville succeeded Jane Pauley in the anchor chair in 1989. While young, pretty and professional, Norville was seen as breaking up the popular team of Pauley and Gumbel and ratings plummeted in the wake of that decision. Norville anchored the show for all of 1990, but was replaced by Couric in February 1991. Upon Couric's arrival, the show's ratings rose again.
Over the past 20 years, the show's best year was 2000, when it averaged a 5.3 live plus same day household average, according to Nielsen Media Research, and an average audience of 6.2 million viewers. More than 10 years later, ratings and viewership have dropped off, with a 4.0 household average and an average audience of 5.4 million viewers. But in today's fragmented TV universe, that's a very solid showing.
By comparison, ABC's Good Morning America, in second place, had its best year out of the last 20 in 2006, averaging a 4.1 rating in households and 5.23 million viewers. Last year, GMA averaged a 3.5 in households and 4.79 million viewers, some 600,000 short of Today, which remains the morning leader.
And CBS' The Early Show, just renamed and revamped as CBS This Morning, is still a distant third. That show's best year out of the last 20 came in 2003, when it averaged a 2.7 rating in households and 3.28 million viewers. Last year, when the program was still The Early Show, it had declined to a 2.1 household average and 2.85 million viewers.
“It's a very steady performance, but not one we ever take for granted,” said Capus of Today's remarkable run. “You don't get a steady performance like this without continuing to be on your game, without being hungry and wanting to move forward. We feel good about the numbers, but it's important not to take them for granted. We have to earn our place in people's homes.”
One of the most important factors for success in daytime is a strong connection between the show's hosts and its viewers, and that's true whether a show's host is Oprah Winfrey, Regis Philbin, Ellen Degeneres or Dr. Phil, or whether it's Matt Lauer, Ann Curry, Al Roker and Natalie Morales. If a show's hosts are popular with viewers, that guarantees them a frequent place in their homes, and that's key to keeping ratings steady. And Today has managed to keep that winning formula among its anchors for decades.
“It's true that our viewers invite us into their homes, and I don't think it's ever as true as it is in the morning,” said Capus, who was a supervising producer on Today in 1995 and 1996. “Mornings are very busy times, so you want to have a comfort level with the other elements that you bring into your home at that time. The secret sauce of the Today show is that comfort level—the chemistry of the team, the comfort with the audience and the interaction between each other. That's what's different about the Today show and always has been.”
“You start with a relatively small number of people who actually have the versatility to handle the variety of segments we do,” said Bell. “These are incredibly talented journalists who are also very skilled broadcasters. They are able to be welcoming in the morning so that viewers are willing to let us into their homes at their most vulnerable time of the day. They have to have the skill level to be able to go from interviewing a presidential candidate to Dr. Oz to Donald Trump in a span of 90 minutes and then go make a souf! é with Martha Stewart, while keeping it all together and understanding the right tone. That's a unique skill set.”
That comfort level is so important that any transitions at Today have been big news. When Couric left Today in 2006, it made headlines all over the world, as did the announcement that The View's Meredith Vieira would be replacing Couric that fall. Vieira coanchored with Matt Lauer for " ve years, stepping down last June. She was replaced by Today veteran Ann Curry, who had been Today's newsreader since 1997 and a part of the show since 1994. Morales, the rookie of the four key current coanchors with just nine years under her belt, took over as newsreader when Curry made the switch.
Today may be facing another transition soon, with Lauer's contract up at the end of this year. Lauer is prohibited from entertaining offers until September, according to reports.
NBC is said to be considering hiring American Idol host Ryan Seacrest, who also has a deal with NBC owner Comcast via its E! Entertainment. It is more likely that Seacrest would come on as a contributor to the show rather than as a replacement for Lauer.
“The No. 1 priority is keeping Matt on the Today show,” NBC Entertainment chief Robert Greenblatt said last week at the winter gathering of television critics and reporters in Pasadena, Calif.
Changes notwithstanding, Today manages to always feel like itself.
“Transitions are something we take very seriously around here,” said Lauer, who celebrated his 15th anniversary with Today the week before the show's 60th birthday celebration. “But we put people in a position to succeed. Katie was here 15 years. Meredith had an enormous challenge but she stepped in gracefully. When Meredith left, Ann had already been on the show for 16 years. I had sat next to Ann in the anchor chair 200 times by that point. And then we have a team of contributors who are familiar to our audience.
“That's the magic of producing a show like this. The producers have to establish a family—four people and an extended family that America is comfortable with. There's no formula for it. It's a lot of hard work, with a lot of very talented people behind the scenes.”
“People watch TV for people,” said Al Roker, who has been with the show the longest of the four current coanchors, having started as a " ll-in for Willard Scott in 1990. “As highly advanced as we've become, you still don't see people gathering around a computer, unless it's to watch two-minute videos. For the communal experience, when we did [last year's] royal wedding, for example, I heard from viewers all the time, ‘We all got up together and watched that together.' We are surrogate members of their families. We're their surrogates at places they may never get to.”
Today has been popular enough over the years that NBC has expanded it, first to three hours in 2000, then to four in 2007. The show's softer fourth hour features Hoda Kotb, a popular Today contributor, and Kathie Lee Gifford, the former host of Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee. The fourth hour just added an overnight run, so Today alone fills 25 hours a week of NBC's time, and that doesn't include weekends.
“Think about how much programming the Today show generates for the network right now,” said Bell. “It's four hours per day. The Today show always has been a big deal, but it's an even bigger deal now. It's a huge brand that stands out.”
Technologically, Today is literally light years ahead of where it started, using satellite, microwave and broadband technology to get its broadcast distributed seamlessly all over the country in several different time zones. The broadcast itself airs four hours a day, but NBC News' operation— which includes Nightly News and MSNBC—is a 24/7 operation, buzzing all the time.
“The show has become agile and more muscled,” said Curry. “We're much better at responding to breaking news, and we live in a time when news is breaking second to second and people are finding out about those events in real time.”
Curry—and her million Twitter followers— is frequently mentioned as an apt user of social media, using it both to inform and be informed.
“If you believe that there is something important about informing the American people, how would you not be on Twitter?” she said. “My feeling is that every opportunity I can, I'm going to inform people. I've found it to be incredibly useful for finding out what people are thinking.”
Tweets may be 140 characters spreading across the Web, but in Curry's case, they offer the same rules that applied to Dave Garroway, holding up newspaper headlines: It's all part of being that first, trusted, national—and international—connection to the day. And through six decades, no program has done it better.
With 60 years under the show's belt, “I'm looking forward to much of the same,” said Morales. “Our program is always moving forward with the changes and transitions of the culture, so we're only going to get bigger and stronger.”
E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter: @PaigeA
One name usually missing in such recounting is that of producer Mort Werner, Pat Weaver's long-time associate--in radio in San Francisco and then post-war co-owned KVEN(AM) Ventura--who not only oversaw "Today" but also the other two "service" shows of the THT triumvirate: "Home" and "Tonight."
Self-effacing Mort enjoyed taking credit for recruiting J. Fred Muggs whom he encountered in an RCA Building elevator. Others he brought to the network included Johnny Carson for late night.
In the late 50s, Mort left NBC for Kaiser Industries and then Young& Rubicam returning as VP Programming for 13 years in the 60s, until retiring in Hawaii.
And that Garraway photo "taping" [the clock could indicate that it was during the broadcast] of the first show was more than four years before Ampex introduced the VR 1000 in a small room off the mezzanine of Chicago's Stevens Hotel during the1956 NAB show.
Dick Block - 1/16/2012 5:13:05 PM EST
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