Originally created 11/28/01

'Today' losing ground in morning dominance



NEW YORK - The curtain may be coming down on a period of remarkable TV dominance by NBC's Today show.

Katie Couric and Matt Lauer's broadcast is still the clear leader in the morning, but its rivals are ascending, particularly ABC's Good Morning America. The trend has become more pronounced since Sept. 11.

It is causing some internal angst at one of television's most profitable shows, a program that has known nothing but success over the past decade.

"Sometimes these shows need a little kick in the pants," said Today show spokeswoman Allison Gollust, "and that could be what we're seeing happening."

A week after the presidential election last year, Today was on a real high. Its average audience of 8.4 million that week was more than Good Morning America and The Early Show on CBS combined, according to Nielsen Media Research.

For the same week this year, Today had sunk to 6 million viewers. GMA had 5.1 million viewers,and The Early Show had 2.8 million.

The ABC show, which crept closer to Today in the ratings during the week of Nov. 12 than it had in five years, has increased its audience by 12 percent since the attacks. NBC, on the other hand, is down 5 percent.

"Good Morning America was the most aggressive of the three in changing its format in response to the hard news climate," said Andrew Tyndall, a consultant who studies the content of TV news.

It often opens each hour with a dynamic segment involving several correspondents reporting on breaking news, instead of showing news headlines or having newsmaker interviews, Mr. Tyndall said.

The experience of ABC's hosts - Diane Sawyer reported five years ago on the Taliban's treatment of women, and Charles Gibson spent more than a decade covering Washington - is something viewers can sense, said Shelley Ross, executive producer of Good Morning America.

"We have a staff that's very smart and very hungry and very willing to stay up all night and not miss a story," Ms. Ross said.

Today has been slow to respond to the news and "a lot of the advantages the show had have turned into negatives," said Steve Friedman, executive producer of The Early Show.

After Sept. 11, shades were drawn for several weeks over the Rockefeller Center window where Today fans congregate. Al Roker didn't work the crowd during weather segments. Outdoor concerts only returned last week. Ms. Couric and Mr. Lauer's popularity as personalities isn't as important in a hard-news period, experts said.

The ratings edge that usually gives Today a big advantage in booking guests is not key at this time, Mr. Friedman said.

Today also was hurt by Ms. Couric's absence, Mr. Tyndall said. She was off nine of the 45 weekdays after the attacks, many of them after the death of her sister.

Adding the third hour to Today earlier this year strained a staff already in transition, Mr. Tyndall said. Today named a new executive producer, Jonathan Wald, in May to replace Jeff Zucker, who became NBC entertainment president.

"The biggest reason it seems to be going down is they miss Jeff Zucker," Mr. Friedman said.

Ms. Gollust said Today departed from its typical formula after Sept. 11 - the news gave it little choice - but it affected NBC's show more than the others.

"The past few weeks we've seen something of a shift, and it is something that everyone is looking at, believe me," she said. "But it is important to note that there's still a million viewers between us and second place."

The Today show celebrates its 50th anniversary in January and will go on location at the Winter Olympics in February, two events that give NBC an opportunity to widen the gap again. Yet if either coincides with a busy news period, they could also give Good Morning America and The Early Show opportunities to distinguish themselves.

"The real story here is two shows are going up and one isn't," said Mr. Friedman of The Early Show. "On the other hand, we'd love to have the numbers they have."

'Good Morning America'

With its news approach and hosts, Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer, ABC's Good Morning America has increased its audience 12 percent since the Sept. 11 attacks.

'Today'

Since the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, NBC's Today show and its hosts, Katie Couric and Matt Lauer, have lost 5 percent of their audience.