In Depth

‘Today’ Pulls Ads to Gain Ratings

The battle for ratings supremacy between NBC’s “Today” and ABC’s “Good Morning America” continues to grow more ferocious, and the Peacock’s longtime frontrunner is pulling out the stops - and some commercials - to retain its crown.

On several occasions over the past several months, “Today” executive producer Jim Bell has jettisoned the five minutes of national advertising during the less-watched third half-hour of “Today,” and thus eliminated Nielsen Co. ratings for that time period from the final ratings average for the week.

The national advertisers’ spots are rescheduled for later play that will provide the level of audience they were initially guaranteed. “GMA” has beat “Today” in total viewers at least one day in each of the last four weeks. On Monday, Oct. 29, for example, “GMA” led by some 140,000 viewers. Two days later, on Halloween - a day on which “Today” has long ruled with its full costume extravaganza - “GMA” came within some 90,000 viewers of catching the NBC morning show, according to final national data from Nielsen Media Research.

The gap between the two shows was an average 70,000 for Monday through Wednesday that week.

But when Mr. Bell dropped the five minutes of national advertising out of the third half-hour of “Today” on Friday, Nov. 2, the gap between the two shows for the week was bolstered to190,000 viewers when the final numbers were posted. Likewise, the gap in the 25- to 54-year-old demo that is most important to the morning shows went from an average of 210,000 for Monday through Wednesday to 330,000 when all five days were factored in the finals.

Mr. Bell also removed the third half-hour from ratings on Friday, Oct. 19; Friday, June 6; and Wednesday, May 23, the last day of the sweeps. (None of the morning shows slots any national advertising in their fourth half-hour, when many of their viewers have left for work.)

Actually, on Oct. 19, both “Today” and “GMA” dropped the national ads from their third half-hour. “GMA” senior executive producer Jim Murphy said he did it in response to hearing “Today” was going to do it. As of Wednesday that week, “GMA” had won Tuesday and Wednesday and “Today” had a lead of only 20,000 viewers over “GMA.” In the final nationals for the week, “Today” led by 240,000 viewers and expanded its demo gap from 260,000 as of Wednesday to 270,000 for the full week.

Removing an occasional less-watched half-hour from the “Today” ratings average is a legitimate strategic option for Mr. Bell.

“If we were doing something that wasn’t an option for anyone else but us, that would be one thing. We’re doing something that anyone else can do, whenever they want, and in fact have done,” he said.

Mr. Bell said the decision to drop the national ads is sometimes about counterprogramming and changing up the format against something a competitor has planned, but he conceded it is sometimes about the ratings. He said the decision is “generally made as a team.”

Mostly, he said, “I think it’s bold and it’s aggressive and it’s smart.”

“They’re not doing anything outside the rules,” Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus said.

However, an advertising agency executive said the opt-out practice, as “Today” has employed it, “just really misrepresents how your show is really performing.”

“It’s all manipulation,” said an executive at another network who recalls NBC’s use of “supersizing” episodes of its strongest series when it began to lose its grip on prime-time supremacy under Jeff Zucker, then the top entertainment executive, now the president and CEO of NBC Universal.

Variations on the practice are not new. NBC schedules only local ad inventory for affiliates to sell in the first half of the “Football Night in America” studio show, which often faces tough competition from football runover on CBS or Fox. NBC has used the same strategy for segments that begin prime-time Olympics programming. Network sports programmers who find themselves broadcasting a blowout game regularly move final national spots forward in the game in case viewers lose interest and tune out.

In another variation designed to help local stations, particularly during sweeps ratings periods, networks have scheduled prime-time programming on some of their weaker nights to run over long enough to qualify late local newscasts for being specialed out of the ratings average for the month.

A former morning-show executive producer maintains, “All this ratings gymnastics is useless to [advertisers] writing the checks.”

Mr. Bell is not shy about attributing the raised eyebrows and voices produced by his strategy to “sour grapes” from old-fashioned thinkers.

“We’re not going to sit back and just be held to someone else’s sensibility or tradition. I mean this very sincerely. That kind of thinking is dangerous, to say, ‘Well, but we’ve always done it that way.’ Take a look around. It’s a complete transformation of our business. Everyone is hustling and churning,” he said.

“People are consuming stuff in different ways, and we look at it across our entire platform and prism of our strategy for the ‘Today’ show and its brand, not just sitting there like these guys are whining about a third half-hour commercial. We’ve all got bigger things to worry about, frankly. Seriously. This is very 1978.”

“GMA’s” Mr. Murphy, who has an obvious vested interest in tracking and talking about the “Today” strategy, said the gap between the two shows is “more of a psychological spread” at this point.

If “Today’s” historic 621-week winning streak is broken, it will be a watershed moment in the advertisers’ perception of the show as the place to be—and the place for which they are willing to pay a premium CPM.

If “Today’s” streak were snapped, advertisers “would stop and ask, ‘Is our money in the right place?,’” Mr. Murphy said. “It’s getting threateningly close and the disparity between the No. 1 and the No. 2 in the cash put out is fairly substantial. It doesn’t reflect reality.”

According to data from Nielsen Monitor-Plus, first-place “Today” brought in an estimated $384.2 million for the year through Aug. 31, and “Good Morning America” posted $217.2 million in the same period.

Nielsen Monitor-Plus data, which cannot take into account the assorted packaging options the networks offer advertisers, estimates the cost of an average 30-second spot on “Today” at $36,267, compared to $30,928 for a 30-second spot on “GMA.”

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