NBC adds an hour to a.m. franchise

'Today' goes later, Later 'Today' just goes (from network)

Shortly before NBC executives unveiled their prime time lineup last Monday, they threw a bone to their affiliates-extending top-rated Today an hour, to 10 a.m., replacing the struggling Later Today.

The move is effective in the fall and means that freshman companion program Later Today will likely be bumped off most of NBC's affiliates. NBC executives say that show will continue to be carried on the NBC owned-and-operated stations starting in the fall, for the most part at 10 a.m.

As for stations outside of the 13 NBC owned-and-operated stations-it will be up to individual station managers to decide whether they want another season of the low-rated series.

Affiliates received word of the plan at their annual gathering with the network in New York last week. What the network didn't disclose were the business terms of the move, such as the inventory split of the new hour.

Nevertheless, affiliates were pleased with the news, said Jack Sander, president of Belo's broadcast division and newly elected chairman of the NBC affiliate board of governors. "Everyone's very happy about it. Later Today was not well received or well liked."

Network Executives didn't rule out a possible run of Later Today on Pax TV, although there are no talks ongoing at the moment. Asked about that possibility, Paxson President Jeff Sagansky said, "It wouldn't be bad if it did, but right now we're focused on doing [joint sales agreements] with NBC affiliates."

Today executive producer Jeff Zucker said the network has kicked around the idea of expanding Today "on and off for 20 years," due in no small measure to the network's struggles to be competitive in daytime over the years. "Now is the right time to expand," he said. In addition to the obvious ratings problems with Later Today, "Today has never been stronger, and we're confident where we stand visàvis our competition."

Zucker said that in recent years, the show has lost almost two full program segments due to inventory carve-outs for both the network and affiliates. "So right now, I would have no problem going to 9:20 [a.m.], and it's really not a stretch to take it another 40 minutes to 10 a.m.," he said. The third hour, he continued, would be similar in tone to the second-more feature oriented than the hard-news focused first hour.

"The Today Show is a terrific show, and they're hitting on all cylinders right now," said CBS-TV CEO and President Leslie Moonves. "Well, we're going to make our morning show three hours as well."

Moonves was only kidding about CBS' freshman The Early Show, which has struggled to find a morning audience. The Bryant Gumbel-hosted morning program has been rumored to be in trouble with network executives lately, but, at least for now, Moonves said CBS is standing by its show.

"We think the quality of our show is excellent, we think it's much better than it was a year ago. We're not thrilled with the ratings, but I still believe in the show," said Moonves. "I still believe we have the guns to deliver a terrific show and, hopefully, we will do that.

"CBS has made the mistake in the morning of going through 400 anchors, 400 name changes and 400 producers. It's time we stick, at least for now, with what we've got, and we plan on doing that."

The Today move was the second gesture by NBC to improve relations with affiliates in recent weeks. Three weeks ago, it put on hold a plan to air the NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw on Pax TV each night immediately after it aired on NBC. Talking to reporters at the Pax TV upfront last week, NBC President Bob Wright acknowledged that "we probably got a little bit ahead of ourselves on that one."