Today show struggle with Good Morning America is all about which team infotainment junkies like best
I fear the good folks at the Today show may be missing the point.
With ABC rival Good Morning America scoring two ratings victories in recent weeks, NBC's morning crew has pulled out the stops; scheduling highly-hyped interviews with dysfunctonal actor Ryan O'Neal, dysfunctional singer Bobby Brown and much-less dysfunctional singer Adele, along with visits from dysnfunctional tlak show host Rosie O'Donnell and celebrity offspring Kelly Osbourne.
The goal, to beat back the slow erosion of its ratings lead, which has seen GMA beat them twice in weekly ratings.
But I think they may be missing the point. It's telling that GMA didn't beat them in ratings during the much-watched week where former Today show host Katie Couric filled in for a vacationing Robin Roberts.
Though the high-profile substitute was a well-placed shot across Today's bow -- pushing them to deploy a guest visit by Sarah Palin they might have otherwise saved for the current May "sweeps" ratings period -- it wasn't the real reason why GMA is such a threat. That was apparent when GMA's historic ratings victory over Today actually came, in the week when Roberts returned from vacation and helped the show snap a 16-year winning streak by NBC.
The fact is, ABC has built a team which viewers find appealing in the most unlikely cast. Roberts, a former sportscaster, has an engaging chemistry with cohost George Stephanopoulos, the political guy who still seems a little uncomfortable with the lighter moments required of a morning news anchor. In the world of network TV news, where lasting audience shifts take time, GMA has built up a cast of regulars who have forged a morning habit slowly nibbling at NBC's lead.
Now Today is in the toughest of positions, struggling to overcome a long-building problem with short-term solutions, including throwing newly-re-signed anchor Matt Lauer at every big story possible -- deploying him to London this week more than 80 days before the network's coverage of the London Olympics is due to start.
Too often, Today descends into a morass of tabloidy, inconsequential stories after the first two or three segments, filled with pieces on YouTube videos, celebrity shenanigans and debates with a panel of "Today's professionals" featuring TV personalities chewing over stories in the news about which they often know very little. All the morning shows feature such material to be sure, but Today's pivot seems to come a bit quicker and steeper these days.
It's a lot of empty news calories to start a day with, and I'm not surprised more viewers have been encouraged to try an alternative.
The cure for Today's problems is a tough one; shaking up a team viewers have known for a long time, without alienating that many fans who still show up.
Longtime anchor Ann Curry seems to be the focus of such talk, given her struggle to handle interviews and succeed the often-underestimated Meredith Vieira (how odd was it to see that Vieira was the first surprise guest showcased on Today when Couric started co-hosting?)
It's also a change which would take time. But what ails Today is something no interview with a controversial celebrity can cure.