Rumble in the Morning

Today show stumbles as rivals sharpen up

In the morning-news ratings race, longtime champ Today
on NBC has slipped in recent weeks, sliding 11% in a key demo for the quarter and giving up much of its lead over archrival Good Morning America
on ABC.

Theories abound to explain the dip in ratings, from the easing urgency of war news to a side effect of NBC's dip in prime time ratings. And competition is ratcheting up: As GMA
makes strides, CBS's The Early Show
continues to chisel away by pushing harder news coverage.

The stakes are huge for NBC. Today
is a cash cow for the network because its ratings dominance allows the show to command a premium from advertisers, accounting for almost half of the network's $500 million in profits.

NBC executives dismiss the downturn as a momentary blip, noting that the show had its highest viewership ever during the regular season and did strong business during the recent upfront ad market. "Look at it over the course of a year," says Today
executive producer Tom Touchet. "Our numbers are still incredibly strong." Still, he acknowledges the recent ratings problems: "I'm not going to make excuses."

Given the narrowing gap with GMA, there has been talk inside network headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza about a management shakeup at Today. Speculation grew louder after an embarrassing July 1 edition of the show, when, for some inexplicable reason, Today
stayed with a taped Robert Redford interview followed by host Katie Couric in a live badminton match with players from the U.S. Olympic badminton team. Meanwhile, the competition was showing the first images of Saddam Hussein on the stand in a Baghdad courtroom.

In the wake of that fumble, network brass has brought back Weekend Today
executive producer Don Nash, who had a long history with Today
before moving to the weekend edition. Nash, a key lieutenant of NBC Universal President, Television Group, Jeff Zucker during Zucker's long, successful run as Today
executive producer, is expected to help Touchet, Couric and company stave off the GMA

In total viewers, Today
dropped about 3% in the second quarter compared with the same period last year, averaging around 5.4 million viewers each day. At the same time, GMA
was flat in April but increased viewership 8%-10% in May and June. (The NBA finals and playoffs gave a huge ratings boost to ABC, helping flow audience into GMA
on the mornings after the games.)

In the key morning-news demo sold to advertisers, adults 25-54, Today's performance was much worse during the quarter, off about 11%. GMA
performed poorly in April but was basically flat during May and June.

Today's lead over GMA
is still substantial, but it has shrunk drastically. A year ago, Today
was drawing 43% more 25-54 viewers than its ABC rival. During this year's second quarter, that lead shrank to 30% and, for the month of June alone, dropped to about 24%.

Executives at the other news shows are crowing. Former NBC Nightly News
producer Ben Sherwood acknowledges that GMA's recent ratings performance is mixed. "But," he insists, "to hold your ground and to grow in the big picture is an accomplishment."

The latest drop coincides with ABC's decision to move longtime GMA
executive producer Shelley Ross over to newsmagazine Primetime
last April. Ross was replaced by Sherwood, but industry executives say Sherwood's changes thus far have been moderate, with more of a focus on heart-tugging stories.

CBS is hoping to steal NBC morning viewers, too. "There's a 360,000-viewer swing in the morning," says Early Show
senior executive producer Mike Bass. "GMA's gaining older viewers. We're gaining younger viewers. We'll take the younger viewers."

News executives and analysts say Today's recent problems start several hours before the show hits the air, during the previous night's prime time slot. The network's summer schedule is fizzling, with a slate of reality shows failing to deliver and viewership off more than 10%. That means prime time promotions deliver fewer shows to Couric the next morning.

NBC also suffers from comparisons with its successes during the weeks following last year's attack on Iraq. Today
gained the most viewers from the start of the war because of its leadership position, so it has suffered more as the immediacy has faded. Although the past quarter saw a heavy news cycle—the death of Ronald Reagan, the abuses at Abu Ghraib—viewership of all three morning shows by 25-54s is down. Combined viewership by all demos, however, is up, driven mostly by adults over 55.

Each of the networks executes a different viewer strategy, says broadcast-news analyst Andrew Tyndall. Today
builds its show more around anchors Couric and Matt Lauer, prominently featuring them interviewing politicians and celebrities. GMA—whose mediocre viewership reflects its celebrity bookings—relies more on feature pieces by its correspondents and less on anchors Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson.

Showing more of the reported pieces and news anchor Robin Roberts is "one way they've made GMA
a younger show," says Tyndall. In turn, he sees, CBS's Early Show
pushing harder news, "particularly in the first hour," and succeeding.

What's next? Touchet expects Today
to get a boost from NBC's coverage of the Olympics, which will help build the base for a revival in the fall. In past years, however, new viewers flocking to Today
during the Olympics tended to scatter after the closing ceremonies.

Sherwood has changes afoot at GMA
but won't offer details. Don't expect huge shifts, though. "I'm a gradualist. I don't think that big changes ever work," he says. "There's no need for a new GMA. That would ignore the success of the last five years."