NBC has lost its lead in morning ratings race
Posted June 27, 2012
Ratings tell the story of Ann Curry's exit from NBC's Today.
The long-dominant morning show has seen a drop in audience since Curry assumed the co-anchor seat next to Matt Lauer a year ago. At the same time, archrival Good Morning America on ABC has grown, breaking an amazing Today streak of weekly ratings victories dating from 1995. CBS, which revamped its distant third-place a.m. show in January, is down 8%.
Today's lead for the season is less than half of what it was at the same time last year. Since the start of the TV season in September, Today (5.3 million viewers) is down an average 4% in viewers, and GMA (4.9 million), the longtime No. 2, is up 4% compared with the same period the year before.
"When you look at the trend line, the narrowing of the ratings race began almost precisely when Curry replaced (Meredith) Vieira. It's really hard to think of anything else that's going on" to explain Today's slump, says Andrew Tyndall, a network-news analyst and publisher of The Tyndall Report.
Bill Carroll of Katz Television Group, which helps TV stations make programming decisions, says more factors than Curry, such as NBC's poor prime-time performance and GMA's stability, may have played a role in the ratings fluctuations.
But he says viewers may see differences between Curry and Vieira, her popular predecessor, especially in their relationship to Lauer. "You always had a feeling that Meredith was needling Matt, and they had that kind of playfulness, whereas Ann and Matt seemed to be fine but did not have that same playfulness."
A change in anchors isn't surprising in the case of a ratings decline (though it rarely happens this quickly or obviously). Team chemistry is pivotal to the success of a morning show.
"The team is so important because they become a part of the rhythm of morning life in the country. We are creatures of habit, and that TV show becomes part of the habit," says Deborah Norville, anchor of syndicated newsmagazine Inside Edition, who had a similiarly short tenure as a Today co-anchor in the early 1990s after succeeding viewer favorite Jane Pauley.
"One of the reasons it's such a (big deal) when someone leaves a morning show, as opposed to the evening news, is because that person has spent way more time with us," Norville says.
GMA executive producer Tom Cibrowski acknowledges the importance of the anchor mix and the difficulty of changing morning habits. "The team that we have," including co-hosts Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos, "has really re-engaged the morning television audience," he says. "The audience knows when people on television are getting along and enjoying each other."
Morning shows are profit centers, adding hundreds of millions a year to network coffers. That adds to the importance of getting the on-air relationships right.
"These shows can be very lucrative. (The) production costs are a little lower," says Brad Adgate of ad firm Horizon Media. "While NBC has been in a ratings doldrum in prime time, the fact that they've been dominant in these other day parts has shielded them financially."
Adgate also credits GMA for closing the gap. Appearances by performers from such popular ABC fare as Dancing With the Stars and stunts such as former Today host Katie Couric's appearance in early April could explain at least part of the viewer increase.
As a promotional vehicle, Today also is expected to play a big role in launching NBC's fall lineup, and the Summer Olympics, from which Today will broadcast live, provide a huge platform. It's important to make any anchor changes before the Olympics, Carroll says.
Remaining in first place may have particular importance to NBC, since Today now stretches well beyond the traditional two hours, and early-morning performance can help or hurt later hours, says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.
Plus, being No. 1 offers more than bragging rights; it has tangible benefits. "There's a premium you can charge for advertising, and typically, it gives you an advantage in booking guests (and) celebrities," Rosenstiel says. It's a "self-fulfilling prophecy. If you're No. 1, you've got these advantages that help you stay No. 1."
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