The friendly banter on the broadcast networks’ morning shows belies how competitive the ratings and prestige race among these advertising cash cows has become.
On-camera talent changes on all three morning shows have network spin doctors touting every ratings gain posted by their programs and trashing the competition when the numbers slip.
“It’s been a volatile year,” said Jim Murphy, “Good Morning America” senior executive producer. Mornings are “so much more competitive. This daypart has become the most necessary financially to the news divisions. We are part of keeping the whole division going.”
As the No. 1 morning show for 586 consecutive weeks, NBC’s “Today” is the juiciest target. Any hint of audience erosion is analyzed to see whether the drop may portend freefalls at ABC’s second-place “Good Morning America” and third-place “The Early Show” at CBS.
The audiences and revenue at stake are making the contest more fierce than usual for the biggest gets, grandest trips by anchors and weathermen and, lately, traffic to the shows’ Web sites. The programs’ producers also are making news segments a battleground.
In the just-completed February sweeps ratings period, “The Early Show” posted the only year-to-year growth in total viewers and 25- to 54-year-old viewers, who command the highest ad rates in news-oriented programming. “Early Show” grew 10 percent in total viewers and 8 percent in women 25 to 54.
“Good Morning America’s” total viewership did not change compared with February 2005 and drooped 5 percent in adults 25 to 54.
“Today” declined 8 percent in total viewers and 11 percent in adults 25 to 54 and women 25 to 54. That’s compared with February 2005, when its coverage from the Turin Winter Olympics earned strong ratings.
Season-to-date, “Today” is off 4 percent in total viewers and 8 percent in adults 25 to54.
How much of that is due to such vagaries as a snowy December 2005, which is better for the morning shows than the more balmy December 2006, and how much might be due to the change in lineup—Meredith Vieira replacing Katie Couric—is unknown.
“Today” executive producer Jim Bell maintains that’s a pretty good sign in the context of losing TV’s biggest morning star ever. The program replaced Ms. Couric with “The View’s” Ms. Vieira, forcing its audience to adjust to the first change in the “Today” family in a decade.
“We still have our gap intact,” Mr. Bell said, referring to “Today’s” ratings lead.
The program’s lead over “GMA” averages 800,000 viewers, similar to comparable weeks in the 2005-06 season. In the 2004-05 season, “GMA” one glorious spring week came within 40,000 viewers of “Today.”
“GMA’s” Mr. Murphy notes his show beat “Today” on the first day of co-host Diane Sawyer’s recent trip to Iran, where she interviewed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“That’s an indicator that people are hungry for big stories,” Mr. Murphy said.
“Today” traditionally has been regarded as the newsiest of the morning shows. Its competitors are tilting at that title by injecting more news into the first half-hour, which draws the biggest audiences.
After a run of high-profile interviews and trips by its headliners, “Today” in December launched “proof of performance” promotional spots that get updated with fresh images from recent features. In mid-January, “GMA” unveiled a “Wherever There’s News We’re There” spot that also gets regularly refreshed.
Steve Friedman, CBS’s news VP in charge of morning programming, has pored over “Today’s” February numbers, which include some 12-year lows. He suggests a lighter mood on the show makes today’s “Today” softer.
“Both we and ‘GMA’ have decided to attack the ‘Today’ show on news,” he says. “We’re trying to make [‘Early Show’] a harder, smarter show.”
Since early January, when Russ Mitchell was named news anchor, “Early” has grown year-to-year, while “GMA” and “Today” have shown losses.
“We are getting viewers the ‘”Today'” show is losing,” Mr. Friedman says.
That cast change is just one of the staff shuffles.
CBS’s morning show feels less crowded since Rene Syler’s exit reduced the co-host count to three: veteran Harry Smith, Julie Chen and Hannah Storm. Weatherman Dave Price is the show’s chief liaison to viewers, stationed on the studio’s plaza when he’s not sharing viewers’ adventures.
“Good Morning America” has experienced the most extensive cast changes: Charlie Gibson left his morning home to become “World News” anchor last year. Chris Cuomo became “GMA’s” news anchor but often is found in the interview area or on the couch with Diane Sawyer and Robin Gibson. Popular New York City weatherman Sam Champion became “GMA’s” weatherman-plus.
“The fact that we haven’t lost a viewer since last year to me is very promising,” Mr. Murphy said.
“Today” also recently added to its stable of high-profile contributors, including former New York Giants star Tiki Barber and real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran. She had made frequent appearances on “GMA” until making a CNBC-“Today” deal recently.