NEW YORK – A recent job promotion came with what seems to be a counterintuitive mandate for NBC News senior vice president Libby Leist: Drum up interest in the “Today” show anytime other than the mornings.
It's a survival strategy for “Today,” which celebrates the 70th anniversary of its first broadcast in January. Along with ABC's “Good Morning America” and “CBS This Morning,” the pandemic has been rough on the traditional morning shows.
For generations of Americans, the shows have been habitual places to turn to for some news and a check of the traffic and weather as they got ready for work and hustled the kids off to school.
Yet who cares about the traffic and weather if you're not leaving the house?
Viewership is down at all three programs, although to be fair, it is for television in general. But for the morning shows, the loss hits hardest among viewers aged 25-to-54 —- working people. In that age group, viewing dropped 22% between the first three months of 2020 and this year at “Today,” 24% at “Good Morning America” and 16% at “CBS This Morning,” the Nielsen company said.
There’s more than a passing interest in whether or not those viewers resume their morning habit when it’s time to return to the office. That 25-to-54 age group is also the demographic used to set advertising rates, and the revenue from these shows is the engine that powers network news divisions.
“Today” is subtly reaching out, reminding people who may be sleeping later at 8 a.m. each day that they can set their DVRs so they don't miss anything. The show is more aggressively hawking material planned for upcoming days to give viewers an incentive for tuning in.
Leist is also spearheading an aggressive effort to make content available on a 24-hour “Today” streaming service that was launched in 2020 primarily for archived material. The show's personalities are involved with podcasts, digital series, newsletters, even TikTok features.
Savannah Guthrie's YouTube show boils interviews down to six minutes, Craig Melvin's series “Dad's Got This” spotlights fathers making a difference, Carson Daly's “Mind Matters” talks about mental health issues. Jenna Bush has her own book club.
“You may wake up with them, but you'll want to spend more time with them the rest of the day,” Leist said.
The morning shows still have news potency, as witnessed by Guthrie's interviews with Liz Cheney and Ellen DeGeneres this week. Yet the assignment given to Leist, who used to produce “Today” each morning, speaks to the initiative's importance to NBC News.
Rivals are trying their own approaches. Two podcasts are attached to “CBS This Morning,” and the CBSN streaming service runs an abbreviated version of the show. The show is adding a new wrinkle next week: With anchor Tony Dokoupil out for maternity leave, Drew Barrymore and LeVar Burton will fill in as celebrity guest hosts during the 8 a.m. hour.
“The idea of extending the brand makes so much sense because of the way live viewing is declining these days,” said Jim Spaeth, a principal in Sequent Partners, a media consultancy.
Not all, perhaps not even most, of viewership erosion is due to the pandemic. In 2000, during the height of the Katie Couric-Matt Lauer dynasty, the “Today” show was being seen by 7.2 million viewers a day, and less than half (3.3 million) were watching during the first three months of this year. “Good Morning America” is down 29% during the same period.
Where people once turned on their TVs to get a sense of what happened in the world overnight, now they can grab the smartphone on their bedside table. Podcasts like “The Daily” have established themselves, and cable television offers opinionated alternatives.
“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” said Alice Sylvester, Spaeth's colleague at Sequent Partners.
This year in particular, people who had been obsessed with politics and COVID-19 in 2020 are likely seeking a break. A big chunk of the cable news audience has drifted away for the same reason.
All three morning shows boast deep experience onscreen with the personalities that serve as their centerpieces. Robin Roberts has been a “Good Morning America” co-host since 2005, worked on the show for a decade before that, and viewers have seen her through the ups and downs of health worries.
Guthrie at “Today” and Gayle King at “CBS This Morning” have both been in their roles since 2012. Both shows survived sexual misconduct scandals that led to the abrupt firings of Lauer and King’s partner, Charlie Rose.
Offscreen it’s different. The news divisions at ABC and CBS both had turnovers at the top this spring. Shawna Thomas has been executive producer of “CBS This Morning” for less than a year, and CBS would not make her available for an interview. The top “Good Morning America” executive since 2014, Michael Corn, left the company abruptly in April. ABC also declined interview requests about its show.
For much of the past few decades, the morning shows are where broadcast network news divisions have run up huge profit margins. Despite so much of the audience drifting away, advertising revenues have stayed pretty steady the past couple of years, according to Kantar Media.
Even though “Good Morning America” has a slightly larger audience, “Today” leads among the younger demographic sought most by advertisers, and thus earns more. Kantar estimated that the NBC show had $449 million in ad revenue in 2019, and $473 million in 2020. Its two rivals held fairly steady.
CBS has improved its competitive position within the past year, simply because it is losing its audience at a slower pace than the others. Its morning show is up 22% in viewership since 2000, when it was essentially an afterthought.
Despite ratings declines, the shows are still the best option for reaching the largest amount of viewers in the morning, advertising experts say. Their aging audiences have been a particularly strong target for the pharmaceutical industry.
“The people who are still watching and dedicated to the show is still a valuable audience,” said Trey Dickert, media director at Media Two Interactive. “They have a lot of purchasing power.”
This story corrects that the 24-hour "Today'' streaming service with primarily archived material launched in 2020.