Weekly Column: NBC’s Today made the most of its big “get” this morning — Matt Lauer’s exclusive and chilling interview with Dottie Sandusky, wife of former Penn State assistant football coach/convicted sex offender Jerry Sandusky, in which she said the victims were “manipulated” when they “saw money,” did not scream from the basement of her house as one has claimed, and that her husband having showered with the boys is a generational thing. ABC’s Good Morning America, meanwhile, was touting its talk with ABC News’ Dan Harris about the on-air panic attack he suffered a decade ago – the result, he says, of years spent covering wars abroad and his use of recreational drugs to deal with the emotional aftermath of that war coverage.
Coming out of the Sochi Games, the morning infotainment-show war has never been hotter. Today, which won the two weeks of the Winter Olympics – its first weekly victories since the 2012 London Summer Games – returned aggressively with a Love Your Selfie interactive campaign, a ribbon-cutting on its new outdoor space by NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, and a make-up hug between de Blasio and Today weatherman Al Roker after their much-reported Twitter dust-up. Lauer’s Sandusky exclusive is Today‘s latest sit-down in that aggressive post-Sochi push that also included a chat with Toronto’s click-bait mayor Rob Ford. Even so, GMA jumped back on top in the ratings the very first week after Sochi, and has widened its lead each week, though the gap is still smaller than the 1.1 million lead GMA had on Today this season leading up to Sochi. “All this competition has been good for the viewer – we’re all trying harder, all fighting as hard as we ever have,” Today EP Don Nash told Deadline. “I’ve been at this show 25 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it. … We are fighting for every viewer.”
Viewers are liking the ruckus. This season to date, overall audience is up for all three broadcast morning shows, including CBS This Morning, which is distinguishing itself from its broadcast competitors by not chasing the pop-culture trends to the same degree and sticking more with hard news. Season to date, the three-network overall audience of 14 million is about 1.5 million ahead of same time last year and the daypart’s biggest broadcast crowd since the 2005-06 TV season. In the news demo, the three-network audience jumped 10% year-to-year — about half a million viewers — to 5.5 million, which is a three-year high. Each of the three programs is up by double digits in overall audience, and Today and GMA each climbed 12% in the news demo, while CBS This Morning is up 2%. Season to date, Today also rose nearly 20% with the younger 19-49 age bracket, where GMA climbed 4%. (Only here has CBS declined, by 2%.)
In an age where flat is the new up, according to some broadcasters working in primetime, and down is the new flat, the resurgence of broadcast TV in the mornings, by double digits, is noteworthy. “Everyone is being aggressive on all fronts… The battle is at a fever pitch. I know that’s a morning-show cliche, but for those of us who have been in the trenches it’s true,” GMA exec producer Tom Cibrowski told Deadline. “All people working in morning [TV] should be really proud that everyone is up,” he said, calling it “amazing in a world where anybody can get information anywhere.”
Among the things driving viewers to the programs are ensemble casts (no more on-air talent-twosomes); loads of interaction, not only with fans on the street outside the studio but with viewers; and, mostly, being live.
“People have found that live television excites them again. Most of television isn’t live any more. That’s why you’re seeing record highs for the Super Bowl and the Oscars,” Cibrowski explained. Morning shows, he said, are enjoying a “renaissance because there are so few places to see live TV, and we do it every morning and we try to make our live TV spontaneous and relevant and surprising at the same time.” This is in contrast to broadcast TV’s live competition series in primetime, which may have started out being spontaneous and relevant and surprising but have since had most of that produced out of them, in favor of more monstrous sets, slick lighting, slicker hosts, massive amounts of product placement, and pre-recorded – but younger-skewing – music.
A couple of decades ago, storefront studios with an outdoor space in which on-air talent could interact with everyday folk was the Big New Thing in morning TV. Now it seems quaint. The New Big New Thing is the social room, in which on-air talent and the celebs they interview can take questions from everyday viewers, snap a selfie, or take a moment with the resident goldfish. To that end, GMA this week introduced its Social Square – which critics say is a knock-off of Today show’s previously introduced Orange Room, going on to scold that it’s in keeping with the way Today blazed the storefront/outdoor space trail before GMA and an earlier iteration of the CBS morning show followed its lead.
“I think people want to interact with these shows now more than ever,” Nash said. “Because of social media, I think they almost feel entitled to be a bigger participant in what they’re watching than ever before.” Morning shows, he added, “are maybe the only daypart in television where it’s almost essential you watch it live and we are delivering the news as it happens and responding to feedback from the viewer as it happen.”
These social-media rooms are particularly intended to attract younger viewers. And, going forward, expect show producers to look for stories to cover that have obvious viewer engagement angles. Cibrowski says his producers have been told “to think about engagement with viewers first and make the television part of it. We’re much more inclined to go after a story that has an element where we can do engagement and social media thing.”