Katie Couric vs. Sarah Palin: why battle for morning show supremacy is so hot

ABC called in a.m. TV queen Katie Couric to trump NBC's 'Today' show. NBC called in Sarah Palin. When it comes to morning shows, networks are defending valuable turf. 

Ida Mae Astute/ABC/AP
Chef Emeril Lagasse (r.) judges the creations of co-hosts George Stephanopoulos (l.) and Katie Couric for the Breakfast Sandwich Smackdown Champion on the ABC's 'Good Morning America' in New York's Times Square Tuesday.

If you thought morning news shows were just about weather and cooking, think again. As Katie Couric’s high-profile stint on "Good Morning America" this week – and her faceoff with Sarah Palin on NBC Tuesday – shows, that a.m. TV real estate has become broadcasting’s high-stakes battleground.

Those morning shows, which many people experience only as background noise to their morning rush, fill many important roles for the networks as they face declining viewership amid increased competition from other news sources.

They help drive brand loyalty, provide a rich landscape for advertising and cross-brand promotion, and above all else, produce a steady cash flow. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the “Today" show brough in more than $500 million in ad revenue in 2010. 

“Morning shows are like the Rock of Gibraltar,” says Paul Levinson, author of “New New Media.” “When you get up in the morning and are getting ready to leave, you don’t have time to go online or listen too closely, so they have adapted to that role of being background noise with just enough information to keep   people listening.” 

People’s eyes and ears are fresh and ready to take in information, he says, but in a passive mode. “This is why morning television has been so impervious to competition from the web,” he adds.

“The biggest mistake morning TV could make is simply to put the wrong person in that host seat,” he adds.

Finding that person is a kind of network art that has proved maddeningly elusive, says Brian Balthazar, editor of popgoestheweek.com and a former “Today" show supervising producer. 

“Ever since Katie Couric took the nation by storm [in 1991], other networks have been trying to capture the same kind of magic with varying degrees of success,” he says. But as the sparks between NBC and ABC this week show, they will continue to try.

NBC has ruled the morning ratings war for some 16 years. ABC had hoped to break that reign this week, but the early ratings show that on Monday at least,  NBC still held the lead. 

“The morning shows have become an integral part of a network’s look, feel, and brand,” says Mr. Balthazar.

Pointing to the four hours that make up NBC’s “Today" show morning block, he says, “That’s a huge amount of programming and it really influences the way people perceive and identify the network."

But this week’s hosting battle is a bad sign, says Mark Tatge, a journalism professor at DePauw University in Indiana. “This represents a sharp turn in a shrill direction,” he says. “It is a sad commentary that this is produced by the network’s news division.”

While he acknowledges that the format has demonstrated a unique staying power during the past 60 years of broadcast TV, he says “all of television is in a major transition,” with everything moving online. The broadcast model of local affiliates as it has existed for decades “is falling apart.”

Whether the morning shows will continue to exist in the forms as we know them today, he adds, “is a real question with the breakup of the network model.”

But there has been much hand-wringing over the future of broadcast television for many years, says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York.

“When people talk about the end of broadcast television, I hope they are not talking about the morning programs,” he says.  

They are cheap to produce, relative to scripted shows, and have adapted to what people want in those early hours of the day. “These shows are all about programming that needs to be watched live,” he says, much like the Super Bowl, whose ratings continue to climb.

“Nobody replays the weather over the weekend,“ he says. “Regular television is still the best way to see most live programming.” 

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