MBPT Spotlight: ‘Today’ Show Sees Chance To Get Back In The Game As Olympics Approach

On Monday, ABC News, feeling its oats and wanting to crow to the media, put out a press release that proclaimed its morning show, Good Morning America, scored “the largest fourth-quarter total viewer lead over NBC’s Today in more than 22 years.”

Facts are facts, and that is a fact. Through the first quarter of the 2013-14 broadcast season, which is the fourth quarter of calendar year 2013, GMA was averaging 5.68 million total viewers compared to 4.97 million for Today, a lead of 710,000 viewers per morning, according to Nielsen data. That’s up from a lead of 520,000 viewers in the fourth quarter of 2012.

You can’t blame ABC News for wanting to stick it to NBC News. After all, until April 2012, when GMA drew more viewers than Today, its NBC rival had held the viewer title for 852 consecutive weeks. NBC News is, understandably, staying rather mum about Today’s ratings.

However, beneath the surface, there is a glimmer of hope that things might be starting to turn around for the embattled morning show. While most media agencies who buy the news dayparts for their clients do so using the 25-54 demo as currency on which ratings guarantees are based, Today in fourth-quarter 2013 gained 274,000 18-49 viewers per show compared to the previous year, and went from trailing GMA by 80,000 viewers in the demo, to leading by 144,000, 1.64 million to 1.50 million. Younger is still good for advertisers, unless we’re talking about pharmaceutical companies or high-end, luxury automakers.

In that key 25-54 “news demo,” Today gained 284,000 viewers compared to GMA’s increase of 215,000 viewers. That cut the GMA viewer lead in the demo to 71,000 viewers per morning from 90,000, with GMA averaging 2.145 million viewers to Today’s 2.074.

And perhaps most importantly, the 2014 Winter Games is also on the horizon, and Today usually gets an audience lift once the Olympic telecasts begin.

NBCU has to hope the current trends and the coming Games work magic in all demos. Where Today continues to get beat badly is among viewers 55-plus. In the fourth quarter of 2013, GMA gained 366,000 55-plus viewers, while Today gained 147,000. GMA in the fourth quarter was averaging 3.236 million viewers compared to Today’s 2.587 million among the 55-plus crowd, a lead of 649,000 compared to a lead of 430,000 in fourth-quarter 2012.

If those numbers were for primetime entertainment programming, media buyers would be more understanding, given that 18-49 remains the main demo ad buys are guaranteed against, and in some instances 25-54. The 55-plus crowd is rarely a consideration. News, however, can be different.

“Clients that buy news do want an older audience,” says Billie Gold, VP, director of buying/programming research at media specialist Carat. “Particularly pharmaceutical, luxury car and financial advertisers. And if they can get guarantees based on 25-54, then all those 55-plus viewers are value-added.”

Still, Today has to be buoyed by at least some of the trends in numbers, even small indications. Today did lower its median age viewer slightly to 55.9 from 56.6, while GMA stayed virtually the same, rising to 57.9 from 57.8. In addition to reaching more men and women 18-49 than GMA, Today also reaches a few thousand more men 25-54, but GMA has close to 70,000 more women in the demo.

From Russia With Love and Money
NBCUniversal hopes a little spin will continue upward trends; this week, the company began a new promotional campaign for Today that will resonate across all 22 of the NBC and Comcast media properties. The hope is that this will coincide with the usual audience lift Today gets during the Olympic Games telecasts, with the next edition beginning in Sochi, Russia next month.

Brad Adgate, senior VP and director of research at Horizon Media, wonders if an ad campaign is just putting a pretty Band-Aid over a bigger issue. “The promotions might get some more people to initially tune in but it’s more about the on-air hosts of the show,” he says. “Are these the people viewers want to spend their mornings with? The formats of the broadcast morning shows are all pretty much the same. Some may have a little more hard news, but the formula for these shows hasn’t changed much over the years. It comes down to the on-air hosts.”

Gold believes some of the viewer animosity toward Today cohost Matt Lauer, who was blamed in media accounts for the removal of Ann Curry as his cohost, has dissipated, so Today does have a chance to recapture some viewers. But she adds that among the morning shows, the chemistry of the hosts is key. “Right now at ABC, the hosts make viewers feel like they are spending time with a bunch of friends.”

That’s something NBC is going to have to achieve, she says, if it is going to continue to win back viewers.

Going For Gold
As far as the Olympics being a prime promotional platform for Today, it clearly has been in the past and should be again next month during the Sochi Games. The problem, however, has always been that while Today gained viewers during the two weeks the Games air on NBC and its other networks, it always quickly lost them once the Games ended.

According to a Nielsen ratings analysis by Adgate, during the last Winter Games in Vancouver in 2010, when Today was still top dog in the morning, the show averaged 5.6 million viewers during the pre-Olympics week and jumped to 6.4 million during the first week of the Games, but by the first week after the Olympics, viewership fell to an average 4.8 million viewers.

The competition between Today and GMA heated up during the Summer Games in London in 2012. Just a few weeks before the opening ceremony, Savannah Guthrie took over for Curry as Lauer’s cohost, but a few months earlier, GMA had already drawn more total viewers during a week than Today for the first time in 16 years.

By the time the Olympics came around in July 2012, Today was struggling. Adgate’s analysis shows that during the week of the opening ceremony, GMA was averaging 4.8 million viewers and a 1.8 18-49 demo rating, compared to Today’s 4.3 million and a 1.8 demo rating. During the first week of the Olympics, GMA’s viewership fell to 4.3 million and a 1.6 demo number, while Today rose to 5 million and a 2.5 18-49 rating. During the second week, GMA maintained that 4.3 million and 1.6 demo rating, while Today jumped higher to 5.9 million viewers with a 2.4 demo rating. However, during the first week following the Olympics, Today again fell behind GMA, averaging 4.4 million to GMA’s 4.6 million viewers, although it did keep a slight edge among the 18-49 demo, 1.8 to 1.7.

Adgate says the 5.9 million Today averaged for the week of Aug. 6-12, 2012, was its largest audience since the week of Nov. 7-13, 2011. He said the 1.6 million viewer advantage over GMA for that first week of the 2012 Summer Games, was the largest lead over GMA since the Vancouver Olympics in Feb. 2010.

Both Adgate and Gold are not optimistic about Today maintaining whatever viewer lead it gets over GMA during the upcoming Sochi Games based on the past trends. But they also agree that despite all the negative publicity Today has received in the media about losing mass ad dollars as a result of GMA overtaking it in viewership, the show is still a major moneymaker for NBC.

Adgate points out that the show is still doing solid viewer numbers both overall and in the demos, except for 55-plus. He adds that the morning shows also have lower production costs than primetime series.

Gold says the perception created by media accounts of the GMA-Today battle is that once GMA passed Today in viewers, advertisers began pulling their dollars out of Today and putting them into GMA. But she says the buying process is much more complex than that.

“I don’t think there’s any client that pulled all of its dollars out of Today and moved them into GMA,” she says. “Most clients who buy the morning news shows like to buy two or all three of them. It’s all a negotiation. But for NBC, Today is still its golden goose.”