DC at Night

DC at Night

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Cutthroat World of Morning TV

Every morning when you get up, have that 1st cup of coffee, and get ready for the rest of the day, a fierce ratings war is being waged, a conflict involving the 3 major TV networks, millions of viewers, and more than a billion dollars in advertising revenue.

Until recently, the outcome of that daily battle was never in doubt. For 582 straight weeks, beginning in the 1st administration of President Bill Clinton, the NBC powerhouse Today show captured the number one spot with ABC's Good Morning America in second and the CBS morning show a distant 3rd. But last year, sparked by controversy on the Today show, Good Morning America was able to shake up the industry and move into the coveted top spot.

The story of that victory and the series of moves that have continued in its wake provide the basis of the new book Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV by Brian Stelter, a media reporter for The New York Times covering television and digital media.

Stelter appeared yesterday at the Newseum to discuss his book and the morning TV world he has been covering for years.

"What goes on in the morning is akin to late night, except with more money on the line," Stelter said. "There's a billion dollars at stake and they (the networks) fight over every last dollar of that. The access has shifted to the morning. There's more fame, more glory, and more money."

Even though people of all ages watch morning TV, the networks have a targeted demo audience - women between the ages of 18 to 54. "That's how they are judged," Stelter said. However, there is irony in that position. "The shows are made for women but they have been produced by men," he noted.
On the set of the Today show
Stelter highlighted the back story behind the fall of the Today show, which resulted from the messy dismissal of Ann Curry, who had been co-anchoring the program with Matt Lauer, who with his $25 million salary, commands the top spot in the morning TV world. "Ann Curry had a few detractors, but her fans truly loved her. The truth is she was undermined from the very beginning. There was talk about replacing her 6 months after she got the job," Stelter said.

Some network executives questioned the wisdom of removing Curry. "Wouldn't  removing Ann Curry be like killing Bambi?" one asked. And so the botched firing became known as Operation Bambi.

"It was all in the way they did it," Stelter said. Stories of the move circulated for months and Curry broke down on a tear-filled farewell performance. NBC viewers, disgusted by what they had witnessed, abandoned the show in large numbers. The day after Curry's final appearance, Today lost 600,000 viewers. "It's not a good thing to fire an anchor in times of high unemployment," Stelter said. "A lot of people out in America liked Ann Curry and many felt like Ann Curry; they too had lost their dream job and found themselves unemployed."

As would be expected, ABC's Good Morning America, was the direct beneficiary of NBC's blunder. "It had been a tossup every week, but this was a giant gift that the Today show handed GMA," Stelter said.

That show was co-anchored by George Stephanopoulos and Robin Roberts. They were joined by 3 others, an innovation that worked. "It's like a party. When you add more people to the party, the party gets more comfortable. They (ABC) got to 5 and that equaled 7 or 8," Stelter said.

"At the core, these morning shows are like family and the networks emphasize their families," Stelter said. The ABC family experienced a shock when it was announced that the popular Roberts, a breast cancer survivor, had contracted MDS, another life-threatening disease that would require extensive medical treatment. She learned about her condition on the same day Good Morning America beat Today for the 1st time. But viewers rallied around the show. "It's what people do. They bring over pot roasts. They bring over casseroles. They want to stay loyal. That's what families do," Stelter said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Brian Stelter
Of course, much has changed in the morning TV world since Today became the 1st such show to air in 1952. "Then there was a question whether viewers would let TV in their homes in the morning," Stelter says. But even more has changed in the news business and the way news is reported and the young Stelter is a prime embodiment of that change. In  2004, Stelter created TVNewser, a blog covering the television news industry. At the time, he was a freshman at Towson University. He sold TVNewser to Mediabistro.com six months later and continued to run it until May 2007, when he graduated from Towson. He joined the Times two months later.

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