The morning news arena has always been a bruising business, but lately all of the broadcast news divisions are scrambling to stop a steady erosion of viewers.
The a.m. landscape has been marked by major personnel upheavals in front of and behind the cameras at all three morning shows. And the show's producers—acutely aware of the competition—are looking to other platforms to assuage the loss.
NBC's Today has sat atop the morning news heap since 1995. But in the last year, the NBC money-maker—which rakes in an estimated $500 million a year in ad revenue—has seen 9% of its target audience of 25-54-year-olds disappear. ABC's Good Morning America, the perennial No. 2, has come within a couple hundred thousand viewers of Today in recent weekly averages, and on some days beat Today. However, it has not been able to convert Today's audience erosion into morning dominance. GMA has lost 11% of its audience for the same time period (Sept. 18, 2006, to Sept. 23, 2007).
Both broadcasts are down in women, and GMA has lost a considerable amount of male viewers (17%). CBS' Early Show attracts half the viewers of Today—and makes about a quarter of the money. But with the appointment of Shelley Ross to executive producer, CBS is working to put the Early Show on the same playing field. In January, it will jettison the blended format that has hobbled the show by allowing local affiliates (comprising 20% of the country) to insert content into the first hour of the show.
Ross, who started her job three weeks ago (she displaced Steve Friedman, who was in charge of morning broadcasts at the network, and former executive producer Michael Bass), has already divided the Early Show producers into two camps: "tape producers, who win awards, and editorial producers, who grow the audience" by bringing in buzzy, high-profile stories.
Meanwhile, over at Ross' alma mater GMA, former WABC General Manager Dave Davis was appointed last week to executive VP in a stunning division-wide shakeup in which day-to-day supervision of all regular broadcasts was removed from three vice presidents and put into Davis' hands. Davis comes with a mandate to get high-profile and breaking stories on GMA first.
Said Jim Murphy, senior executive producer of GMA, "As we continue to close in on Today, part of that is to really boost support for the program throughout the division. They can smell it just like we can. They know we really have a chance to win and so everybody wants to make that happen. It's a very, very, very big thing for us."
Executive Producer Jim Bell said extending the Today brand beyond the TV screen to multiple platforms is the mission for broadcast news.
"It's about eyeballs," he said, pointing to a record number of page views (13.8 million) for Today.com two weeks ago. "The math that worked 10 or 15 years ago doesn't apply."