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It's morning, and it's rowdy

As the TV shows duke it out for Jackson trial figures, NBC's 'Today' pulls ahead in ratings.

June 15, 2005|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — In Tuesday's installment of the fevered morning show wars, "Today" drew the first blood.

Co-anchor Katie Couric opened the broadcast by securing an exclusive with Michael Jackson's attorney, Thomas A. Mesereau Jr., which NBC flagged with an emblem "First on Today" in the corner of the screen.

"This is his very first interview since the verdict," Couric noted as she introduced him.

But her scoop didn't last long.

Over at ABC's Times Square studio, "Good Morning America's" Charlie Gibson also interviewed Mesereau by satellite, half an hour later.

ABC scored its own coup by persuading six Jackson jurors to be flown across the country for a live in-studio interview with Diane Sawyer.

"Today's" Matt Lauer shot back with two juror interviews but had to do them via satellite. Later in the show, NBC had two other jurors in the studio for interviews, but only after waiting for them to wrap up at ABC.

Tuesday's broadcasts offered a glimpse of the tight competition between the two top-rated morning shows and underscored how "Today" is fighting to maintain an edge in the face of "Good Morning America's" recent climb in the ratings.

Nearly two months after taking over the NBC program, Executive Producer Jim Bell and executive-in-charge Phil Griffin have sought to re-energize the show by aggressively pursuing exclusive newsmaker interviews, giving the anchors more freedom to ad lib, and encouraging creative approaches.

"We want to make the show sparkle, and hopefully we've done a little of that," Griffin said in a recent interview. "It's about creativity, finding the right edge to the story."

So, while "Good Morning America" beat out "Today" for a live behind-the-scenes tour of the King Tut exhibit at LACMA on Tuesday, two days before it opens to the public, "Today" sought to one-up the competition by dispatching correspondent Campbell Brown to Egypt. She conducted a live tour of the actual King Tut tomb with an Egyptologist.

(For its part, ABC had correspondent David Wright live in Giza, Egypt, where he introduced a taped segment about the "curse of the mummy.")

For almost a decade, "Today" has remained the undisputed champ of the morning shows. But in recent months, "Good Morning America" put a scare into NBC by coming close to surpassing it in viewership. In early May, "Today" was edging its ABC rival by only 45,000 viewers.

However, in the last five weeks, NBC has pulled away. By the end of the month, "Today's" lead was up to 497,000 viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. Early estimates indicate that it grew to more than half a million last week.

In overall viewership, "Today" is still down from last year, averaging 5.9 million viewers this season to date, compared with 6.2 million viewers at this point last year. Meanwhile, "Good Morning America" has an average viewership of 5.3 million, up from 5 million during this time last year.

CBS' "The Early Show," perpetually in third place, has averaged 3.3 million viewers to date this year, a little more than half of the viewership of its network rivals.

Being first is not just a matter of pride -- the morning programs are the most profitable parts of the network news divisions, and the highest-ranked show can charge advertisers a premium.

NBC officials expressed relief at the recent ratings trend.

"The show is demonstrably better, and I think the audience has clearly noticed," said NBC Universal Television Group President Jeff Zucker. In late April, he fired executive producer Tom Touchet in response to ABC's gains.

Zucker -- the executive producer who guided "Today" to its top-ranked standing in 1995, where it has remained ever since -- praised Bell and Griffin for speeding up the pacing of the program and returning the program to "its news roots."

In the last few weeks, Couric and Lauer have interviewed a spate of newsmakers, including U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean and Madonna.

NBC is already plugging the exclusive interview Couric scored with runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks and her fiance, John Mason, set to air in a prime-time special June 21, with portions broadcast that morning and the next on "Today."

The new executives have also eliminated much of the scripted banter between the two anchors, allowing Couric and Lauer to talk off-the-cuff instead. The change has allowed for a more relaxed dynamic between the longtime co-hosts, who enjoy teasing one another.

"It's important whenever possible to bring some spontaneity to live TV," Bell said. "One change we've tried to make is getting those two, among the best ad-libbers, to have a conversation, be it serious, funny or light."

Ben Sherwood, executive producer of "Good Morning America," acknowledged that his competitors have stepped up their game.

"They've taken it up a level," he said. "They're very aggressively going after stories. They've opened the show up so the anchors can be more themselves."

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