'Good Morning’ Ascending

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For months now, the buzz has been that Jeff Zucker is spending a lot of mornings in the control booth at Today. One would think the NBC Universal chief, who oversees such a vast empire, would have more important things to do. But then again, the wake-up show makes close to $300 million annually, and for the first time in years, its amazing run as the No. 1 morning show is in jeopardy.

For the last six years, Good Morning America has been chipping away at Today’s once seemingly impenetrable lead. In the February sweeps, GMA trailed by less than 500,000 viewers in the key 25-54 demo. A year ago, the two morning shows were separated by more than 1.2 million viewers. (CBS’ Early Show is a perennial also-ran.)

In the cutthroat morning-news wars, any trace of blood in the water immediately prompts rumors of internal strife. It is no different with Today. Besides whispers about Zucker’s presence in the control room, chatter has been rife for more than a year about changes at Today’s helm. A few months ago, Today veteran Don Nash was recalled from his post as executive producer of the show’s weekend edition, in order to help out on the daily production. Other consultants were also installed.

Still, Today executive producer Tom Touchet has soldiered on, perhaps doing as well as anyone could in his situation. Part of the reason for Today’s current challenge is, quite frankly, out of Touchet’s control. NBC no longer dominates prime time, and the loss of the turn-off/turn-on effect has inevitably cost Today in the ratings.

After the February sweeps, Today’s spin machine argued that the Oscars had inflated ABC’s numbers and that GMA was aided by ABC’s return from the prime time dead with Desperate Housewives, Lost and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. But GMA’s emergence as a credible challenger began long before the network’s prime time revival or the Academy Awards’ move from March to February.

In B&C’s Feb. 23, 2004, issue, we reported on behind-closed-door tensions at Today. Back then, veteran news analyst and B&C Contributing Editor Andrew Tyndall traced Today’s vulnerability to the show’s expansion from a two-hour broadcast to three in 2000.

“The third hour may make them money, but it’s hurt the mothership,” Tyndall says now. “It slows things down. It means more Al Roker and Ann Curry in the second hour and less Matt Lauer and Katie Couric as they transition into the extra hour.”

Conversely, GMA has been packing more into each show since Ben Sherwood was named executive producer last April. When Sherwood, an NBC veteran, took over from Shelley Ross (who moved on to an ill-fated stint running Primetime Live), some at ABC wondered if he had the sort of drive Ross had shown in making GMA a credible No. 2. But Sherwood has proved a more than able successor. The word inside GMA is that he has boosted morale, brought a new discipline to the show and put more emphasis on planning.

“Once upon a time, the goal was to narrow the gap between us and Today to 1 million viewers,” says Sherwood. “This has been six years in the making. Everything is clicking.”

Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer at GMA still have a ways to go before they dethrone Today. In January, dissecting the financials of the morning-show wars, B&C’s Business Editor John Higgins spoke to Today’s Touchet, who touted his show’s dominance over its rival with upscale viewers and the premium that advertisers pay for spots.

True. But GMA has momentum, and if current trends continue through next February’s sweeps, Katie and Matt might find Charlie and Diane wearing their crowns.

E-mail comments to bcrobins@reedbusiness.com

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