1. Life & Culture

Four reasons NBC's longtime top-rated morning show 'Today' might be in trouble

City block-sized aircraft carriers have made smoother turns than NBC's Today show, which has faced increasing scrutiny over its ratings losses to rival Good Morning America on ABC.

Last week, another shoe fell as longtime executive producer Jim Bell, who also oversaw NBC's Olympics coverage, saw his duties changed to confine him to that arena of sports. Instead, veteran Today show producer Don Nash was promoted to executive producer while senior vice president Alexandra Wallace (known as a "fixer" who has also overseen the NBC Nightly News and Rock Center with Brian Williams) gets the title of executive in charge.

Why should you care about any of this? Because behind-the-scenes changes viewers don't notice usually bring onscreen adjustments later. Already, MSNBC star-in-the-making Willie Geist has been added to Today's 9 a.m. hour, looking a lot like grooming for succession behind morning TV's biggest star, Matt Lauer.

So when more things start to shift as NBC works feverishly to regain a ratings lead it once held in morning TV for 16 years straight — weekly wins first snapped by GMA in April — don't say I didn't warn you.

What I hope to do in this space is outline the challenges now facing the new crew in charge; the stuff it'll have to overcome to swing the pendulum back its way after a brief stint outside the winners circle.

But Mark McEwen, who worked in morning television at CBS from 1987 to 2002, said Today's problems might be particularly simple: It was just time for the crown to pass on.

"The movement (of viewers) in morning TV is glacial, but it is inevitable," said McEwen, who served as weather forecaster, features reporter and host on several iterations of CBS morning shows, including This Morning, The Morning Program and The Early Show. "People like stability. But even the Yankees can't win the World Series every year."

Here's a sense of what other pitfalls await Today and its new leadership team:

Problem #1:

The Olympics didn't save ratings.

Analyst Andrew Tyndall noted the Today show had a tried-and-true method for beating back the competition in years past, waiting for big ratings from the Olympics or another megaevent to re-engage wandering viewers.

That tactic didn't work for long this year, and now that GMA has momentum, NBC needs more than stunts such as Where in the World is Matt Lauer? to bring back fans.

"You do these (stunt) things to stop yourself from losing momentum," Tyndall said. "You don't do that to regain it."

Problem #2:

Today has become the Matt Lauer show, just as his brand got damaged by Ann Curry's emotional departure.

When Curry was forced off the show amid a tearful goodbye, I cautioned that NBC couldn't let new female co-anchor Savannah Guthrie become the hated replacement the way Deborah Norville was back when Jane Pauley left back in the late '80s.

It seems Lauer has become the new Norville, taking hits from some fans for Curry's ouster even after executive producer Bell insisted the decision was entirely his.

As Tyndall notes, with Meredith Vieira gone, Lauer has become the most dominant presence on the show. Rival GMA has developed a team of likable anchors, including ex-ESPN anchor Josh Elliott and Lara Spencer from The Insider.

"With Vieira, there were two strong personalities there, now they've really made it Lauer's show," he said. "If you don't want to watch the Today show because of Matt Lauer, there's not much else there yet."

Problem #3:

When Today stumbled with Curry's ouster, GMA was ready.

Success in morning TV can come down to two actions: the industry leader stumbling when the closest rival is ready to take advantage.

Ratings between the two programs began to narrow after Curry took over as top female co-anchor last year, just as GMA was assembling a team viewers seemed to like. And as tragic as GMA co-anchor Robin Roberts' struggle with cancer and bone marrow transplant has been, her health issues have been covered extensively by the show, sparking interest and sympathy from viewers.

Problem #4:

GMA has jumped headfirst into the kind of celebrity-drenched, tabloid-tinged news Today once dominated.

Investigative star Brian Ross has been delivering reports on Tampa socialite Jill Kelley's connection to the infidelity scandal enveloping former CIA director David Petraeus; evidence of how seriously ABC's morning show is taking the hunt for news on Kelley's hobnobbing with military stars.

These are the stories that can draw eyeballs, and GMA is angling after them as much as ever.

"The days of people sitting around watching morning television — if they ever existed — are certainly over now," McEwen said, noting the importance of content that is attention-getting enough to draw people who aren't glued to the TV. "The Today show was on top for a zillion years; you can't expect (it) to be on top for a zillion more."