‘Today’ Promotes Curry to Hot Seat as Surging ABC Closes Gap

NBC’s “Today” show, making its biggest talent change since Katie Couric left in 2006, heads into the new television season with its 15-year dominance of morning TV challenged by a resurgent ABC.

Ann Curry, 54, joined Matt Lauer as “Today” co-host in June, moving from news reader to replace Meredith Vieira, who held the job since Couric left. While both “Today” and ABC’s “Good Morning America” attract more viewers than a year ago, NBC’s lead has shrunk to a four-year-low, Nielsen Co. data show.

“That’s a little bit of a P-R blackeye,” said Brad Adgate, head of research for Horizon Media, a New York-based advertising company. He predicts NBC will promote “Today” and Curry more heavily with the new season, when viewers return from summer vacations. “She didn’t start at an optimal time.”

The shows are significant profit contributors for both networks because their audience of 25-to-54-year-olds attracts ads from automakers, drugmakers and foodmakers. according to Shari Anne Brill, an advertising consultant. ABC and NBC are third and fourth in prime-time ratings, respectively, putting more of the profit burden on the rest of their schedules.

“Neither of them is costly to produce,” Adgate said.

Photographer: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

Host Ann Curry on the set of NBC's 'Today' at Rockefeller Plaza on August 5, 2011 in New York City. Close

Host Ann Curry on the set of NBC's 'Today' at Rockefeller Plaza on August 5, 2011 in New York City.

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Photographer: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

Host Ann Curry on the set of NBC's 'Today' at Rockefeller Plaza on August 5, 2011 in New York City.

Since Curry became co-host, “Today” is averaging 5.03 million viewers daily, up 6.7 percent from a year earlier, according to Nielsen data through Aug. 14. “Good Morning America” is averaging 4.46 million, up 15 percent, according to ABC, which is owned by Walt Disney Co. (DIS) That puts NBC’s year-to- date lead at its smallest in four years.

News Audience

NBC, part of Comcast Corp. (CMCSA), has done a better job protecting its lead in the 25-to-54-year-old demographic group targeted by news advertisers. “Good Morning America” is up 8.2 percent in that group and “Today” is up 7.1 percent. With a larger audience base, NBC has widened its advantage by 22,000 viewers since June.

“Ann wasn’t a big change in co-anchor chair,” said Harry Keeshan, chief investment officer at Omnicom Group Inc. (OMC)’s PHD USA media planning and buying unit in New York. “It wasn’t as big of a switch as Katie Couric leaving and Meredith Vieira coming in.” As news anchor since 1997, “Curry was already known to the ‘Today’ show viewer,” he said.

The gains by “Good Morning America” have been driven by its guests, including President Barack Obama, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Donald Trump, according to Keeshan, whose clients include Safeway Inc. and HBO.

On July 11, the show outdrew “Today” by airing parts of Diane Sawyer’s interview with Jaycee Dugard, the Northern California woman who was kidnapped as a child and held for 18 years as a sex slave.

“It’s all about the ‘gets,’ and who has the best musical guests,” Brill said.

Revamped Show

ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and Robin Roberts, hosts of “Good Morning America,” are connecting with audiences after the show’s long-tenured hosts, Charles Gibson and Sawyer, left in 2006 and 2009, according to James Goldston, who took over as executive producer five months ago.

Goldston said “Good Morning America” has revamped its cooking segments and other standing features to make them less predictable and more distinctive. The program has also introduced a daily entertainment segment

“We’ve got a show that is working very well,” Goldston said. “We’re heading into the fall and the future with more confidence.”

Ad Rates

NBC, with a half-million more viewers in total and a similar advantage in the age demographic, commands higher ad rates. A 30-second “Today” spot was priced at an average of $67,900 in May compared with $41,400 for ABC, according to Nielsen data supplied by Adgate.

“Today” has seen its lead dwindle with past talent changes, only to recover later. The show will enjoy a unique promotional opportunity next July when NBC airs the Olympics from London, according to Adgate.

“The only number that matters is the demo,” Jim Bell, the executive producer of “Today,” said in an interview. “Our advantage over our competitors since Ann joined has only grown. I’m not sure what further evidence we’d need. That’s a resounding endorsement.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Andy Fixmer in Los Angeles at afixmer@bloomberg.net; Ronald Grover in Los Angeles at rgrover5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Anthony Palazzo at apalazzo@bloomberg.net

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