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Fourth hour of Today Show?

For a number of NBC affiliates, the network's plan to add a fourth hour to its morning powerhouse Today this fall isn't exactly a slam dunk. While many stations welcome more programming from a proven news brand, others aren't convinced it's the solution to a lackluster daytime schedule. Still, they say, it's better than what they've got now—particularly a certain soap opera.

“I would do almost anything to get rid of Passions,” says Alan Frank, president/CEO of Post-Newsweek Stations, which has affiliates in Houston and Detroit. “That being said, I wonder whether or not this is one step forward for Today. I was very fearful that the third hour would dilute the brand, but it's proven to be moderately okay. But this might take it one step too far.”

One of NBC's most important programs, Today brings in somewhere from $500 million to $560 million in annual revenue, according to TNS Media Intelligence. NBC has said that Today turns in some $250 million in annual profits. And the show remains the highest-rated morning network news program, even as ABC's Good Morning America has chipped away at its lead in recent years.

But the daytime lineup on NBC's 10 owned-and-operated stations founders once Today signs off. Soaps Passions and Days of Our Lives, Warner Bros.' Ellen DeGeneres Show, and NBC Universal's own Martha, iVillage Live and the cancelled Megan Mullally have rarely mustered more than a 1.0 rating among key female demographics.

NBC hasn't officially cancelled Passions, but the show is expected to be off the network's air come fall—to the delight of affiliates that have long regarded the show as an albatross.

“For most of our stations, Passions was a fairly significant underperformer,” says Roger Ogden, president of Gannett Broadcasting. “So a fourth hour of Today is potentially more profitable for us than Passions was.”

Says Perry Sook, chairman/president/CEO of Nexstar Broadcasting Group Inc., which has 12 NBC affiliates, “It's as close to a no-brainer as you get in this business. Anytime you can exchange soap-opera content for news content that's topical, that helps us provide a better service to our viewers.”

NBC has yet to give affiliates details on a fourth hour, but a spokeswoman says the general reaction has been favorable. With the focus expected to be even lighter and more devoted to lifestyle segments than the third hour, however, many affiliates want NBC to rededicate Today's first two hours to its hard-news roots.

“I hope this will mean more serious content from 7 to 8,” says Lisa Churchville, general manager of WJAR Providence, one of Media General's 9 NBC affiliates. “Hopefully, they'll appeal more to people preparing for the workday. Right now, it's very light, even a little giggly.”

Affiliates haven't been told how much inventory they will get in the fourth hour, but Ogden says they “certainly better get the same amount of inventory as we get in the third hour.”Stations also get five minutes per half-hour of local-news cutaways, something that affiliates say helps build their news brands.

But many stations will face a scheduling challenge with a fourth hour of Today. Gannett, for example, airs local community shows at 10 a.m. in 10 markets.

“I've already told NBC that I'm not going to replace these shows,” says Ogden. “On almost all of our stations, we'll run the fourth hour in the time period where Passions runs.”

In some markets (like Denver, where Gannet's KUSA airs Passions at 2 p.m.), that means running the fourth hour in the afternoon, apart from the core program. “I've been telling them that they need to produce it as a stand-alone hour that happens to have a great brand,” says Ogden.

Other stations run top performers, such as Buena Vista's Live With Regis and Kelly, in the 10 a.m. hour and probably aren't inclined to move them.

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Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.