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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 1/16/2012 12:01:00 AM Eastern

Sixty years after NBC'S Today show aired its first episode
and changed morning television forever, it's mission remains
almost exactly the same: “To put you more closely in touch
with the world we live in,” as the show's first anchor, Dave
Garroway, told the world on Jan. 14, 1952.

“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.”

TodayAnchorchart.jpg

“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 palbiniak@gmail.com
and follow her on Twitter: @PaigeA

 

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