'GMA' eyes ad pot as it closes in on 'Today'

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ABC's "Good Morning America" is already closing the gap on viewers with NBC's "Today." Now it's eyeballing the ad dollars.

While ABC crows about the shrinking gap between the morning news shows, which drive significant profits ( a reported $250 million for "Today"), NBC is preparing for the likely exit of its news president, Neal Shapiro, whose expected departure is linked to the erosion at "Today."

"GMA," a two-hour show, has shown only slight advertising growth over the past two years, inching up from $226 million to $290 million in 2004, according to TNS Media Intelligence. The "Today" three-hour juggernaut has commanded a much bigger lead, growing from $426 million in 2002 to $552 million in 2004. In the first two months of this year, "GMA" took in $48 million compared to $92 million for "Today." "Today" gets an estimated $70 million for a 30-second spot, while "GMA" gets $55,000 to $60,000.

That might be about to change. Harry Keeshan, exec VP-national broadcast buying at PHD, said the shifting fortunes of the two shows presents a buying opportunity for advertisers, especially since the price of buying a spot on "GMA" has traditionally been lower than for its top-rated rival.

For the week of May 16, "Today" averaged 5.66 million total viewers and 2.76 million adults 25-to-54, while "GMA" averaged 5.57 million total viewers and 2.62 million in the 25-to-54 demographic.

An analysis of Nielsen Media Research figures by Carat VP-Director of Programming Shari Anne Brill found a gap of just 49,000 viewers for the weekday shows airing May 9-13. Only 110,000 adults 25-to-54 separated the two shows; that demographic is the one media buyers value highest for news programming.

THE THIRD HOUR

Ms. Brill noted that season-to-date "Today" remains in the No. 1 position, with a 594,000 lead over "GMA" in total viewers and 526,000 more adults 25-to-54.

The fierce fight to own the morning is largely about grabbing growth. According to the Broadcast Cable Financial Management Association, which tracks ad revenue at the top three networks, ad revenue in the morning day part was up 12% in the first quarter to $226 million. The only other segment to grow faster was the evening news, up 12.4% to $145 million. Both segments are overseen by the networks' news divisions.

"Today" began losing ground in 2004 after it added a third hour of programming, according to a "State of the News Media" study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "GMA" growth spurts also coincided with a rise in prime-time ratings at ABC.

Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Universal TV Group, shuffled management in a bid to rejuvenate the show. Phil Griffin, VP-prime time at cable sibling MSNBC, joined as senior VP at NBC News in charge of "Today," while Jim Bell, a former Olympics producer, joined as executive producer, replacing Tom Touchet. Colleen Halpin was named senior broadcast producer in mid-May, from executive supervising producer of "The Jane Pauley show."

ZUCKER RUNNING THE SHOW

"Jeff Zucker is running it. He is more involved than an executive of his level should be," said a former "Today" executive.

"GMA" has taken advantage of ABC's stronger prime-time lineup. Last week, on the morning following the season finale of the popular series "Lost," "GMA" aired an extra scene that had to be cut from the episode.

NBC's prime-time fortunes, on the other hand, suffered this season after years of dominance.

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