`Today’ still No. 1, but race for No. 2 closes

May 7, 2001  •  Post A Comment

For the past three months, CBS’s “The Early Show,” long a third-place finisher in the time slot, has been more competitive on Friday mornings. That’s when the castaway voted off “Survivor: The Australian Outback” the night before made his or her first public appearance.

Through April 20, “The Early Show’s” audience on “Survivor” Fridays mushroomed to an average 3.5 million viewers, a spike that boosted it 37 percent over its Monday-Thursday average and that narrowed the gap between “Early” and second-place “Good Morning America.” “GMA” averaged 4.2 million viewers on the Fridays when it competed head-on with the “Survivor” interviews.

Even on “Survivor” Friday, NBC’s “Today” remained No. 1, averaging 5.8 million viewers.

Though the hottest contest right now is for second place, there are potential challenges-and opportunities-for all three morning shows a year from now.

Katie Couric, whose contract expires next year, is being wooed for a syndicated talk show by such major players as AOL Time Warner. And even if NBC manages to hold on to her, how much longer does she want to have to wake up at 4 a.m.? So there is a possibility that “Today” may lose its popular co-host.

“GMA” co-hosts Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson also are likely getting tired of the 4 a.m. grind. Mr. Gibson’s return and Ms. Sawyer’s assignment to the show, both in 1999, were supposed to be temporary. So ABC News must decide on their successors and, some say, bring in the replacements by this time next year.

At “The Early Show,” Bryant Gumbel’s contract is also up for renewal next year. Like Ms. Couric and Ms. Sawyer, Mr. Gumbel has been a big star in the time period. If he were to renew with “Early,” he might just make it No. 1. And if both “Today” and “GMA” were to lose big-name hosts, “The Early Show”-with help from “Survivor III” next fall-could finally become a player.

It’s a dream scenario for Steve Friedman, “The Early Show” executive producer, whose contract also expires next year.

Maybe that’s why he doesn’t sound like a man losing sleep over what the end of “Survivor: The Australian Outback” means for his morning show.

For the second time, the halo effect of “Survivor” has brightened the competitive picture for “The Early Show” on CBS, a network whose morning ritual has been to change talent, format and producers often enough to remain mired in third place.

“`Survivor’s’ great. We love `Survivor.’ `Survivor’ got [viewers] in the door. The show kept them,” said Mr. Friedman, calling from Los Angeles, where he was prepping for the May 4 “Early Show” that would be all about the previous night’s “Survivor II” finale and “Reunion.”

Year-to-year comparisons show that, as happened last summer, “The Early Show” enjoyed huge increases across the board on the morning after “Survivor” installments, but the other four days of the week saw far less impact.

From the week ending Jan. 21 to the week ending April 24, “The Early Show’s” five-day average showed year-to-year increases of 10 percent in total viewers, 22 percent in adults 25 to 54, 36 percent in women 25 to 54 and 33 percent in women 18 to 49.

Pull Fridays from the mix and “The Early Show” showed improvements that look more dazzling as percentages than as actual ratings, which shows the depth of the hole from which the show has had to build since Bryant Gumbel and Jane Clayson became co-hosts in fall 1999.

In total viewers, “Early Show’s” Monday through Thursday is up 4 percent or 108,000 viewers. In adults 25 to 54, the four-day-average increase is 11 percent or 0.1 ratings point, bringing the show up to an average 1.0 rating in the demo. In women 25 to 54, the four-day increase is 27 percent or 0.3 rating points, bringing the show to an average 1.4 rating in the demo. In women 18 to 49 the increase of 33 percent translates into 0.3 rating points and an average rating of 1.2 in the demo.

Year-to-year comparisons show that during the three months of “Survivor II’s” run, there was a 5 percent erosion in total viewership at NBC’s “Today,” which also was flat among women 25 to 54 but up in the other key demos of adults 25 to 54 (an increase of 4 percent) and women 18 to 49 (up 7 percent).

All such comparisons for second-place “Good Morning America” show major losses. Year to year, the ABC morning show is off 11 percent in total viewers, 6 percent in adults 25 to 54, 16 percent in women 25 to 54 and 20 percent in women 18 to 49.

While “Today” numbers are impressive in any form (an average 5.9 and 46 million viewers, a 2.8 rating in adults 25 to 54, a 3.6 in women 25 to 54 and a 3.0 in women 18 to 49), “GMA’s” concrete numbers demonstrate where the battle to retain second place is tightening (an average 4.2 household rating, 48 million viewers, a 1.7 rating in adults 25 to 54, a 2.1 in women 25 to 54 and a 1.6 in women 18 to 49).

“Today’s” overall and demographic strengths, said sources familiar with the sales situation, allow it to command as much as $50,000 for a 30-second spot and make the show a precious cash cow. “The Early Show,” on the other hand, probably gets half that.

The famously bellicose Mr. Friedman, who was executive producer of “Today” from 1979-87 and 1993-94 and who has turned “GMA” bashing into a blood sport in recent months, said “Early Show” passed “GMA” among women 18 to 34 with children in January and has since widened the gap.

“There’s a lot of pressure if you’re in first place,” he said, “but the worst place to be is in second place, knowing you can’t get out of there.

“Now the question is: Can we take a run at them?”

Shelley Ross, the adrenalized executive producer of “GMA,” said of the demo shifts: “I think it’s a pendulum swing solely driven by `Survivor,’ and a pendulum that will swing back as `Survivor’ wanes.”

She inherited a “GMA” that had been critically wounded by the loss of Joan Lunden and that had done little but bleed viewers until Mr. Gibson was brought back to Ms. Sawyer as temporary co-hosts. The Gibson-Sawyer pairing immediately improved “GMA’s” ratings, but more than two years later, with the ratings trend reversed and her two hosts still doing temporary duties, Ms. Ross is focused on building the show’s next generation of talent.

ESPN’s Robin Roberts now will devote some 80 percent of her time to “GMA,” where she’ll “branch way out” with one-on-one interviews and other key assignments. Former White House Press Secretary George Stephanopoulos likewise will stretch by focusing on race and “some very important stories.” Former NBC White House star Claire Shipman, who made her “GMA” debut last week, also will not be restricted to politics in her interviews with newsmakers. Lara Spencer, who is graduating from part-time to full-time with “GMA,” will contribute features on “things that are buzzy.”

“Lara is just pretty much fun all the time,” Ms. Ross said.

Jack Ford, said Ms. Ross, will continue to be the designated substitute for Mr. Gibson and later this month will contribute a series woven around parent-company Disney’s high-profile feature film “Pearl Harbor.”

Overall, Ms. Ross said, “GMA” has simply tried to lighten up after the “dark news cycle” of last year.

Michael Bass, interim executive producer of “Today” since Jeff Zucker was promoted to NBC Entertainment president last December, said he knows what has pulled his show’s overall audience down-the loss of viewers 50-plus-but he doesn’t know where they’ve gone.

“It’s not an area of concern,” he said. “It’s more curiosity.

“We consistently beat the other two shows combined in the key demos,” said Mr. Bass, who said ad sales in the networks’ morning shows generally have been more stable than in other dayparts that have suffered from spending cuts resulting from the downturn in the nation’s economy.

While the question of what host Katie Couric will do when her contract is up in 2002 hovers over “Today,” Mr. Bass is focused on keeping fresh the elements that make the NBC show the one to beat in the mornings, such as this week’s fourth a
nnual “Where in the World Is Matt Lauer?” globe trot.

Stacy Lynn Koerner, vice president of broadcast research for TN Media, attributed some of “Today’s” falloff to the “cyclical” nature of the news business and said “GMA” has “picked up the people they’re going to pick up.”

She said “The Early Show’s” increases were a one-day phenomenon attributed to “Survivor,” but that it is still an improvement. Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming for Katz Television Group Programming, said “lifestyle changes” reflected in the growth of audiences for local-news programs in the 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. time slot might explain the changes in the 7 a.m.-to-9 a.m. block.

“I’m sure there’s not a specific factor that you could say is the overwhelming factor,” said Mr. Carroll, who sounded almost empathetic to the networks when he said that you have to know what the problem is to fix it.

That’s not something local affiliates of the networks want to hear.

“Having a strong, competitive network news program is important for every local affiliate,” said Jack Sander, executive vice president for media operations for Belo, which owns stations affiliated with each of the Big 3 networks.

Mr. Friedman said “Survivor II” has brought in movie studios and other advertisers and sponsors that previously had been uninterested in “The Early Show” audience, traditionally the grayest of the three morning shows.

In the wake of such improvements, Mr. Friedman said, negative talk about the show has died. “There is no talk anymore” about the long-term future of “The Early Show” and its principals.

“A year ago, everybody was wondering what CBS’s commitment was to the show,” he said. “Nobody asks that question any more.”

He hasn’t talked to Larry Beaulieu, general manager of WPEC-TV, the CBS affiliate owned by Freedom Communications in Beaumont, Texas, the 137th market in the country.

Mr. Beaulieu, a member of the affiliate board that CBS recently tried to disown, characterized feedback from fellow CBS affiliates as “frustration with the nonperformance of the morning show on CBS.”

As for the demographic improvements that buoy Mr. Friedman’s mood, Mr. Beaulieu said, “We have not seen the fruit of that improvement,” and he’s not sure Mr. Friedman’s talking points are “sustainable.”

The general manager said the recent rupture between the network and its affiliate board occurred about the time the board was “hoping to engage the network in discussions” about “The Early Show.”

Discussion of “The Early Show” is a planned agenda item at the closed-door meeting of affiliates in Las Vegas on May 30, when CBS tosses the only traditional affiliate convention scheduled by a network this year.