Morning Shows Worth $1 Billion in Ads Get Fresh Look

Sep 2, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Network news executives facing leaner audiences and payrolls are taking dramatic steps this season to fatten up the morning shows that remain cash cows even as they struggle to hold on to viewers.
Despite lifestyle changes and multiplying viewing and information options, the morning shows still get premium prices for their advertising inventory. The daypart brings in some $1 billion in ad revenues per year, according to numerous industry estimates. That adds up to about double what the networks’ flagship evening newscasts take in.
NBC has said it rakes in about $250 million in profit annually from “Today,” the highest-rated and most profitable morning franchise of the last decade. The network will launch the fourth hour of the show on Sept. 10.
ABC’s “Good Morning America” is an energetic second in the hard-run morning show race as it heads into its second season with co-anchors Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts. “GMA” plans to launch a third hour on its subscription news broadband platforms Tuesday.
CBS is poised to make significant changes on- and off-air on “The Early Show” as it prepares to reclaim a critical half-hour of “Early’s” first hour from affiliates. Stations have found local news a more reliable draw than the network show that has in all its incarnations over several decades always finished a distant third.
Making “The Early Show” a more competitive program is second only to strengthening the “CBS Evening News With Katie Couric” on the list of priorities for CBS News and Sports President Sean McManus.
Mr. McManus said “The Early Show” has made good strides this summer creatively; it’s also standing out as the only network morning show holding steady year-to-year in total viewers (2.7 million) and the key adults 25-to-54 demographic, according to data from Nielsen Media Research.
However, it appears increasingly likely that Mr. McManus is preparing to name Shelley Ross senior executive producer of “The Early Show.” The colorful and hard-charging Ms. Ross was the “Good Morning America” executive producer who several years ago began to narrow the gap dramatically between “GMA” and Katie Couric-led “Today.”
It is not yet clear what such a hire would mean for Steve Friedman, morning broadcasts VP at CBS News, who has overseen “Today” and “The Early Show,” or for “Early” senior executive producer Michael Bass, another alumnus of “Today.”
A CBS News spokeswoman said Friday, “We have no announcement to make.”
For advertisers, the morning shows are attractive because the environment is “so broad that almost anybody could fit in there and it’s a safe environment to be in. Advertisers really want to avoid controversial content in general, so something that’s safe and gets a decent broad audience is highly welcome,” said Shari Ann Brill, senior VP and director of programming for Carat.
She does not see the fourth hour of “Today” creating a glut of ad inventory. However, she doesn’t think the additional hour will be sold in the same way as the first two hours, where “Today” still focuses most of its firepower.
“They can’t sell it as news. It’s going to be sold as daytime. It may wind up being more expensive than ‘Passions’ [the languishing soap NBC is moving to DirecTV]. It’s a way to keep the money back at the networks instead of having it go to syndication,” Ms. Brill said.
NBC has begun on-air promotions that place the fourth-hour anchor triumvirate of Ann Curry, Natalie Morales and Hoda Kotb firmly into the “Today” family headed by Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira. They are portrayed playfully, in the spirit of the 7-year-old third hour, which this season has averaged 3.6 million total viewers.
“Today” executive producer Jim Bell said NBC looked at the programming with which the newest hour will compete, from “The View” to “Rachael Ray” to “The Price Is Right.” He said it feels “like we’ve got a little bit of that and more. People are still looking for smart alternatives.”
While NBC Universal’s cost-cutting and restructuring has produced layoffs in the rest of the news division, Mr. Bell said he has added at least 20 positions, not all in editorial roles.
The biggest hurdle in the last days of the shakeout has been working out the technical complexities of the simultaneous transmission of the new hour, which will be carried in pattern on more than 90 percent of NBC-affiliated stations, while the third hour is still on the air in western time zones.
Like TV news executives in general, Mr. Bell is increasingly focused on the digital spinoffs of and adjuncts to the network broadcast of “Today,” which he points out is “the only morning show available live via cell phone.
While “Today’s” audience of 5.5 million total viewers season-to-date is down slightly, there is triple-digit growth on the digital side.
Page views on Today.com were up 150 percent year-to-year in June, with unique visitors up 200 percent year-to-year.
Data like this illustrates that the digital landscape “is big,” Mr. Bell said. “It’s where we’re going.”
Ratings Race
Season-to-date, “Today” has a 15 percent lead over “Good Morning America’s” average of 4.8 million total viewers, and a 26 percent lead over “GMA” in the 25-to-54 demo.
In recent weeks, there has been increased “GMA” viewership that observers attribute to public interest in Ms. Roberts’ breast cancer diagnosis and surgery. Senior executive producer Jim Murphy said he is aware he’s treading a fine line between exploiting Ms. Roberts’ experience and translating it into information useful to the audience, much as “Today” did after the death from colon cancer of Ms. Couric’s husband when she was co-anchor of the show.
Mr. Murphy’s bigger plans for this season include travel.
He’ll be building on the major trips such as Ms. Sawyer’s to the Mideast earlier this year; the dispatching of news anchor Chris Cuomo to the scene of big news stories; weather correspondent Sam Champion’s travels to significant natural events; and the deployment of Ms. Roberts to the Gulf Coast for a two-years-after-Hurricane-Katrina report.
The expansion of “GMA” into a digital third hour will produce more “GMA”-branded material but not more competition for “GMA” itself, Mr. Murphy said.
Mr. Murphy, who was executive producer of “The Early Show” and “The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather” before “GMA,” declined to comment on the “Today” expansion other than, “I just wish them the best. I know how hard it is to be successful.”
So does BIA Financial Network VP Mark Fratrik.
The creation of additional revenue streams from digital and broadband offshoots of the morning shows and the revved-up competition will be good for their respective networks, the analyst said.
The activity proves that while “traditional growth is limited … there are imaginative people in the television business,” he said.
Updated: 9/04/07 9:42 a.m. PT


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