Network morning show executives are working up an unusual amount of sweat this summer as they prepare for a throng of changes among their ranks leading up to this fall.
The morning news shows, ABC’s “Good Morning America,” NBC’s “Today” and CBS’s “The Early Show,” all plan to mix things up much more dramatically than they typically do with the change of the seasons. The shows will fight their traditional battle of the bands with summer concert series. But they’ll also be ramping up viewer contests and promotional efforts.
While “Today” toils on a studio makeover this summer in anticipation of beginning high-definition broadcasts in the fall, it is broadcasting the program entirely from outdoors this summer.
Much advertising revenue is at stake in mornings. While the evening newscasts set the tone and carry the profile of a network news division, a successful morning show becomes the most profitable of a division’s programs. The top-rated morning show, “Today,” for example, brings in about $500 million a year in ad revenues for NBC, according to industry estimates.
What’s more, morning is a daypart still seen as one in which news ratings can grow, even if glacially.
The “Today” show’s 547th consecutive week in first place peaked with the 8.4 million viewers who watched Katie Couric’s exit May 31 after 15 years as co-host, according to Nielsen Media Research data. The NBC morning show beat ABC’s “Good Morning America” by 3.4 million that Wednesday. On the following two days “Today’s” lead over “GMA” was 1.7 million viewers.
The competition in the morning already is intense. But as Ms. Couric and Charles Gibson, who was recently named anchor of ABC’s “World News Tonight,” segue from “Today” and “GMA,” respectively, morning news executives consider early news viewers more up for grabs than they’ve been in years.
Consider the week that followed Ms. Couric’s goodbye.
During one of its water-cooler segments, “GMA” ran a sizable excerpt of “inspirational comedian” Judson Laipply’s video “Evolution of Dance,” which has been viewed some 22 million times on YouTube. The next day, “Today” featured an on-set interview with Mr. Laipply.
Meredith Vieira will replace Ms. Couric as co-anchor of “Today” in September. The on-air promotions of the reconfigured lineup began the day after Ms. Couric’s farewell.
The show also has revved up its seventh annual “`Today’ Throws a Wedding” extravaganza. After seven couples compete, the wedding for the winning couple will be put together in only seven days, after which the couple heads for a seven-day honeymoon selected by viewers.
“There’s going to be a lot of fun out there,” “Today” executive producer Jim Bell said.
ABC’s second-ranked “Good Morning America” is simultaneously preparing for a future without Mr. Gibson and executive producer Ben Sherwood. Mr. Gibson will sign off at the end of this month. Mr. Sherwood will leave in October.
Third-ranked “The Early Show” on CBS, looking for ways to profit from the extreme flux at the other two shows, is calling attention to its stable self with summer contests, one on the road and one on the Internet.
Two Winnebagos bearing the show’s logos already are traveling the country for the “Great American Vacation” and hooking up with “Early” weather ambassador Dave Price for getaway giveaways.
Today the CBS morning program will show the first of the videos submitted online by viewers who think they have special talents. Each week the winner of “Living Room … LIVE!” will be determined by online voting.
Also being deployed to interact with viewers each week this summer: Contractor Rob Mariano, whose entire courtship of Amber Brkich has taken place on CBS, from “Survivor: Marquesas” (which Ms. Brkich won) to “The Amazing Race” (which the couple lost) and finally, their prime-time wedding.
Extra Promo Time
Because their networks have not begun to heavily promote next season’s lineups-and they’re not big on promoting series reruns-all the morning shows can claim a little extra prime-time promotional exposure at this time of the year.
However, Steve Friedman, VP of morning broadcasts for CBS News and former “Today” executive producer, plans to limit his on-air promotions to the shows “Without a Trace” and “Cold Case,” which have inspired follow-ups to real-life crimes on “The Early Show.”
“That really works because it’s targeted, I think, to the audience that would like to watch it,” said Mr. Friedman, who also intends to “try to use the Internet to drive people to the television. That is a point of real departure.”
“Today” conducted its first contest on the Web last spring. And it posted on its Web site video of Ms. Vieira’s visit last week to CBS’s “Late Show With David Letterman.”
“Today’s” prime-time promotions will continue to focus on the show’s topical “gets,” such as the climber who survived being left for dead on Mount Everest. The spots featuring the faces of Ms. Vieira and Matt Lauer, Mr. Roker and Ann Curry are most often seen during “Today.”
As for taking “Today” outside for the summer, Mr. Bell is making a plus out of a potential pain. “Today’s” 12-year-old windowed studio is being redone for hi-def broadcasts, which will start in mid-September. The morning show is repurposing the set it used as home base during the Torino Olympics.
The first few days outside presented some unexpected challenges, especially with acoustics.
“We’ve asked if Mr. Prometheus would turn his fountains off during the show,” Mr. Bell said, referring to the statue familiar to the crowds who visit Rockefeller Plaza.
Being outside, Mr. Bell said, “gives the talent a lot of energy.” “Good Morning America” and its studio in Times Square went hi-def last fall. Out-going executive producer Mr. Sherwood was tight-lipped about summer specials except to say, “There are a lot of great plans for July and August.”
The rest of this month, however, will be “all about Charlie Gibson.”
Mr. Gibson has been a staple of morning TV for more than eight years with Diane Sawyer and for 11 years before that with Joan Lunden, but as flagship anchor he, like Ms. Couric, is now going to fight the evening news ratings wars.
Mr. Gibson’s official farewell couldn’t possibly top the over-the-top display for Ms. Couric, but it is expected to be heartfelt.