Can morning television get a harder edge while not alienating the sit-down-in-your-muumuu-with-your-coffee klatch that is the genre's bread and butter?
ABC News will find out. With new Good Morning America co-host George Stephanopoulos comes a renewed commitment toward news and a jettisoning of some of the fluffier segments that have come to define the milieu.
“We have been talking for months about how light and kooky morning news has become at a time when people are struggling with a million different things, from the economy to two wars to life itself,” says Jim Murphy, GMA's senior executive producer. “We know there are certain things that you have to do to keep [viewers] comfortable while they're watching in their pajamas or their underwear. We're going to tweak the show; we're talking tweaks, not an explosion.”
Meanwhile, over at CBS News, the announcement that David Friedman will take over as executive producer of The Early Show has tongues wagging, and not simply because Friedman is the son of CBS News Executive VP Paul Friedman. Though he worked at NBC's Today in the early part of a still-young career (he began there as a researcher and rose to producer), the preponderance of his experience comes on the entertainment side of the divide as executive producer of Last Call With Carson Daly and various holiday specials for NBC.
What has long been working in morning TV is NBC's Today. The show marked 14 years as the top-rated morning show on Dec. 11—the same day Diane Sawyer said a teary goodbye to GMA and welcomed Stephanopoulos, as well as Juju Chang as newsreader to replace Chris Cuomo. For the season, Today is enjoying its biggest advantage over GMA in seven years.
“That's pretty staggering,” says Today Executive Producer Jim Bell. “We really do have a great story to tell. I think that framed against the backdrop of Diane leaving, it's an even better story.”
Today is the only morning program that has not lost viewers year-to-year. It has posted a gain of 3% among total viewers so far this season (Sept. 21 to Dec. 6, 2009), while GMA has dropped 6% and The Early Show is off 4%. In news' target sales demographic of 25-54-year-olds, Today is flat while Early is down 10% and GMA has fallen 13%. But Murphy maintains that Today's lead “is not insurmountable.”
The morning shows are the news divisions' cash cows. GMA earned an estimated $222 million in ad revenue for the first nine months of the year, compared to $331 million for Today and $150 million for The Early Show, according to TNS.
Bookings are crucial, but the morning shows succeed largely on the viewers' comfort level with the on-air team. ABC News insiders say Stephanopoulos did not test especially well with GMA viewers when he filled in on the show.
“The chemistry between Robin and George will be a work in progress,” says Shelley Ross, the former executive producer of GMA and The Early Show. “The best thing is to let it happen organically, not force it or over-think it.”