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Wake-up call to a.m. news: moms tuning out

Morning broadcast shows, once a staple for women, are seeing audiences shrink as news sources multiply.

February 09, 2007|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — When her children were young, Jenny Lauck used to flip on "Today" or "Good Morning America" as she brewed her morning coffee and tended to her babies.

But several years ago, the 34-year-old mother of three stopped watching the morning shows. After getting TiVo, she had no patience to sit through multiple commercial breaks during a live newscast. On top of that, the segments began to seem more and more frivolous.

"Watching morning television for me is the equivalent of reading People magazine in the dentist's office," said Lauck, who writes for websites from her home in Santa Rosa, Calif. "They don't have anything new or particularly relevant to my life. It seems like a lot of fluff. I feel like I can get information faster and cleaner on the Internet."

Lauck's not alone in souring on network news programs. In particular, this season has seen a significant erosion of the morning shows' demographic sweet spot: 25- to 54-year-old women.

Almost 450,000 of these women -- coveted by advertisers because of their household purchasing power -- turned off the three broadcast morning programs so far this season, a decline of 10% compared to the same point last year, according to a Times analysis of Nielsen Media Research data. (Male viewers the same age also fell by 9%, but they make up a much smaller portion of the audience.)

It's difficult to trace the exact cause of the drop. It comes after two popular morning hosts, Katie Couric and Charles Gibson, left their shows to be evening news anchors. At the same time, the advent of "mommy blogs," the growing popularity of online news sites and the ever-more-frantic press of daily life appear to have led many women to forgo the morning ritual of watching TV.

News executives are sanguine about the ratings dip, calling it a short-term fluctuation. They attribute it in large part to the unseasonably mild winter in much of the country until recently, noting that temperate weather draws people outside, and away from their television sets.

"We are certainly aware of it, but not making a lot if it just yet," said Jim Bell, executive producer of NBC's "Today." "I maintain the foundation of the morning is perfectly stable and fine. I suspect that when there are big, breaking news stories or significant weather events, we will grow, as we've always grown."

If the dwindling female viewership persists, however, it has implications not only for the individual morning programs but the news divisions as a whole, which rely on the profitable shows to finance most of the network's news-gathering operations.

Until recently, the programs were buoyed by expanding audiences and seemed immune to the ratings declines plaguing the evening newscasts. But in the last two seasons, the combined viewership of "Today," ABC's "Good Morning America" and CBS' "The Early Show" leveled off. Viewership has shrunk by 4% so far this season -- a slight drop, but one that suggests the morning programs too are vulnerable.

"There was a perception that early morning was bulletproof," said Bill McOwen, director of national broadcast for the media agency MPG. "Now it's starting to suffer from what its colleagues in the broadcast realm have dealt with for years: that other options exist."

It's a fact all too familiar to the evening newscasts, which have watched their audiences steadily deflate in the last few decades. That pattern has continued this season: The number of women watching the three nightly network broadcasts has dropped by 510,000, while male viewers have declined by 334,000.

Even Couric's much-trumpeted arrival at CBS did not substantially boost female viewership. While "CBS Evening News" has drawn about 29,000 more 25- to 54-year-old women on average this season, an increase of 2%, the size of the total female audience hasn't changed.

"It's a long process," said David Poltrack, chief research officer for the CBS Corp., noting that the number of younger women watching has increased more in the last month. "Katie has made significant advances in connecting with the young female audience. Relative to the other guys, we're making progress there."

Couric's rivals still beat her among women ages 25 to 54, even though they have both lost some of those viewers this season. NBC anchor Brian Williams is down 15.5% in that demographic, while ABC's Charles Gibson, who currently attracts the most women in that age group, has shed 7%.

Television news veterans chalk up the waning female viewership to a medley of factors, including the growing migration of women to online news sites and the relentless stream of disheartening reports about the war.

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