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'Today' Show's Viewer Defections Prove Morning Is a Personality-Driven Daypart

5/03/2013 02:25:26 PM Eastern

The early morning daypart on the broadcast networks is a
personality-driven one where content and the format of the shows are much less
important than how much the viewers like the hosts, Brad Adgate, senior VP,
research at Horizon Media says.

"Robin Roberts [cohost of ABC's Good Morning America]
has become the most popular morning show host and that can overshadow any of
the other things a show does," Adgate adds, in expressing why GMA has
overtaken NBC's Today in viewers. "For many viewers, it comes down to 'who do I want to spend my morning
with' and for a long time it was
with Matt Lauer on Today. That's no longer the case."

Much has been written about Lauer's fall from grace in the
eyes of the viewers and why. Lauer has taken the fall for how NBC handled the
removal of Ann Curry as cohost of Today.
And whether it was at Lauer's request that Curry be replaced or whether the
decision came from execs higher up, the Nielsen numbers show that Curry was
holding her own before reports surfaced in April that she might be replaced.

When Meredith Vieira left Today as cohost in June
2011, the show was averaging 5.3 million viewers; among its core female
audience, it pulled in 1.3 million women 18-49, 1.7 million women 25-54 and 1.6
million women 55-plus. In April 2012, when word surfaced that Curry was going
to be replaced, the viewer numbers for Today
were virtually the same as when Vieira had left.

However, from April 2012 until April 2013, audience numbers
for Today declined by 700,000 viewers to an average of 4.7 million per
telecast.

What happened to GMA during that same period? When
Vieira left Today in June 2011, GMA
was averaging 4.4 million viewers per telecast, and it gained 400,000 viewers
in the next year, but those viewers didn't come from Today. They were
seemingly new viewers who began watching GMA, possibly drawn in by Roberts.

But once the internal turmoil at Today went public in April 2012, GMA began picking up Today
viewer defectors. By this April, GMA was averaging 5.1 million viewers
per telecast over the past year, while Today had fallen to 4.7 million.

And for the week ending April 23, GMA averaged 5.7
million viewers and a 4.3 25-54 rating, compared to Today's 4.9 million viewers and a 3.6 25-54 rating.

Just for the current regular TV season that began in
September, GMA is averaging 5.3 million viewers, while Today is
averaging 4.7, a margin that GMA is touting as its "largest season
margin over Today in overall viewers in 21 years." GMA is also
ahead slightly in both the 18-49 and 25-54 demos over Today, but its
largest margin is with 55-plus viewers.

All of that damage to Today
viewership happened since last April as the 2011-12 regular season was coming
to a close. Looking at that season, Today was still the overall leader
in viewers with 5.3 million compared to GMA's 4.9 million. In the demos for that season, Today led
in 18-49 with a rating of 1.8 to GMA's 1.6 and among viewers 25-54, where Today led with a
2.4 rating compared to GMA's2.0.

So the real damage to Today has come since April
2012, actually beginning right around the time Lauer signed a new contract that
will keep him as host at $25 million per year until 2014.

A look back at the ratings from April to April beginning
with the 2007-08 season and moving forward shows Today with comfortable leads over GMA in viewers each season
-- with margins of anywhere from 700,000 to 1.2 million viewers. But the
collapse that began in spring 2012 came quickly, and while a good portion of
the initial losses for Today were in the older demos, the more recent defections
have been coming in the younger demos.

Since Lauer signed that renewal, Today is down 13% in
viewers, down 21% among women 18-49, down 19% among women 25-54 and down 7%
among women 55-plus. Meanwhile, GMA is up 7% in viewers, flat among both
women 18-49 and women 25-54 and up 11% among women 55-plus.

Adgate says as the lead cohost of Today, Lauer is
being handed the public blame for the loss of viewers.

"There may be lots of reasons why a baseball team loses but
it is the manager who gets fired," Adgate says. "In this case, it's Lauer who
may go."

Adgate points out that Today was the most-watched
broadcast morning show for 852 consecutive weeks and "that is an amazing total."

And while Today may have lost, according to published
reports, between $40 million and $50 million in ad revenue as a result of the
viewer/ratings declines, Adgate says, "Over the years Lauer has made NBC
hundreds of millions of dollars in ad revenue and that's why he still has some
support among management."

Billie Gold, VP, director of buying/programming research at
Carat, agrees that while Lauer's reputation has taken a hit among viewers, a
lot of the GMA success over the past
year could be "the story line of Robin Roberts' cancer battle and her return,
which captured the hearts and attention of viewers."

Gold also says Today moving away from more hard news
event coverage over the past year to do "family of the week" interviews and
non-news segments has hurt viewership.

Gold says most advertisers in broadcast morning buy at least
two of the three morning shows but with viewership down, rates Today can
charge will also continue to drop.

"It will still be a moneymaker for the network, but it won't
be the golden goose that it used to be," Gold says. "The Today show was
one of the most profitable shows on television, and while it will remain a
profit center for NBC, the network will definitely continue to lose valuable ad
revenue going forward."

Gold believes GMA is going to continue to gain
audience slowly, while Today will continue to slowly bleed viewers. And
she doesn't believe axing Lauer will help end the ratings declines -- in fact,
just the opposite.

"If Matt leaves, expect the ratings to drop even
more, as the Today show family will
be blown apart," Gold says. "NBC is going to be in for a hard time in both its
early morning and late night dayparts. I expect Jimmy Fallon's takeover of The
Tonight Show
will drop its ratings below David Letterman, while ABC will
continue to dominate early morning."

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