(September 3, 2006) — The first part of the “Today” show summer mystery has been answered affirmatively: viewers did not abandon morning television’s pacesetter because Katie Couric left after 15 years. Now comes the second, more important question. Will those same viewers embrace Meredith Vieira?
Vieira has been studying current events and promoting “Today” this summer as NBC, which smoothly segued from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams in the evening two years ago while keeping its ratings lead, tries to pull it off in the morning.
The former CBS newswoman and co-host of “The View” starts Sept. 13, the same day NBC reveals a new, completely rebuilt studio in Rockefeller Center.
Despite broadcasting from temporary quarters with a rotating series of substitutes, the “Today” winning streak of more than 10 years in the ratings hasn’t been threatened this summer. In the first nine weeks after Couric’s departure, “Today” had 19 percent more viewers than ABC’s second-place “Good Morning America,” compared to 17 percent in Couric’s last nine weeks, according to Nielsen Media Research.
“We feel like we responded well,” said Jim Bell, executive producer of “Today.” “We have a good plan in place and it seems to be working.” NBC had planned the extreme studio makeover since before Vieira even considered the job. Because “Today” will begin broadcasting in high-definition this fall, NBC needed to completely rewire and replace equipment, Bell said.
Vieira and co-host Matt Lauer have already filmed happy-talk promos with morning teams at more than 30 affiliates, all designed to introduce her to the NBC “family.”
“Everything we saw in the early courtship has just been validated in terms of her accessibility and her intellect and her way with Matt,” Bell said.
The first on-screen personnel change in a decade at “Today” would seem to open the door for its rivals to take a run at the top. But ABC just brought in a new off-screen chief executive for “GMA” and was auditioning male newsreaders for an opening left by Charles Gibson, before selecting Chris Cuomo in late August. As for “The Early Show,” CBS has other priorities now.
One television insider, editor J. Max Robins of Broadcasting & Cable, has wondered whether ABC and CBS weren’t blowing their chance.
“With so much in flux, you would think that everybody would be jockeying furiously for position,” Robins wrote recently. “But the competition looks surprisingly flat-footed and ill-prepared for the promotional onslaught that NBC is planning for its morning money machine.”
Summer isn’t the time to launch an offensive, said Steve Friedman, the veteran morning show producer brought in by CBS this spring to oversee “The Early Show.” Most of his early work could be described as tinkering.
ABC put former CBS producer Jim Murphy in charge at “Good Morning America” in late July. He’s been installing his team, and besides news anchor Cuomo he also brought in Sam Champion as weather forecaster to join with Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts.
“Do we all wish this was over a month ago?” Murphy said. “Absolutely. It was an opportunity to maybe get a few things done before the other guys. But the real test comes in the real TV season and we are going to be ready in that TV season and we are going to fight hard.”
He may have bigger problems on the horizon, considering Gibson, in an August interview with Charlie Rose, said Sawyer had told him earlier this year that “I’m really burned out on `Good Morning America.’”
Murphy said he’s already been “amused and a little disturbed” at the intensity of the morning rivalry. In gossip column dustups, ABC accused “Today” of breaking a deal on when to air a Floyd Landis interview, while NBC has said ABC won’t let it use clips from “The View” to introduce Vieira.
Anchor changes often prompt viewers to shop around, but with Matt Lauer the reigning king of morning television, “it’s difficult to stop that machine,” Murphy said.
“I have my own theories on why this change could help us,” he said. “I’m not going to share them with the competition.”
Since “Today” is the generic product of morning television, the competition is theirs to lose, said Friedman, who used to produce “Today.”
“Nobody is going to take Katie’s leaving and Meredith’s coming in as an opportunity to leave the `Today’ show without giving Meredith a long, hard, cold look,” he said.
That’s a reason for holding off on any bold moves at “The Early Show,” he said. The bigger reason is more practical: CBS is concentrating all of its time and money launching Couric on the “CBS Evening News,” and there’s little left for the morning.
“I think Meredith is going to be terrific,” Friedman said. “I think she will do very, very well, especially in the beginning. She will take a great show and add a fresh perspective to it. She will start out very well. Here’s the question and it’s always the question on morning television how will she wear?”
Over at Rockefeller Center, Bell is eagerly awaiting the move into a new home.
The rebuilt facilities offer more room, including an extra upstairs studio. That might come in handy with NBC considering adding a fourth hour onto “Today,” although the soonest that could happen would be fall 2007. The trickiest part is figuring out logistics on newsy days when the first hour is redone live for the West Coast while the fourth hour is on in the East.
Bell doesn’t expect dramatic changes in how the show is done when Vieira starts, at least until viewers and the staff get to know her.
Bell also projects a not-so-quiet confidence when asked about the change giving his morning rivals an opening.
“If anything, we’ll look back and see the moment of opportunity was the 24 hours between when Katie said she was leaving and Meredith said she was coming,” he said.
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