'Today' show got off too easy; audience may decide its future

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In retrospect, I went too easy on the "Today" show in my Nov. 26 column.

Unless you live in a cave, you know there is buzz in media circles about the lack of buzz around NBC's lucrative (at a reported $250 million in annual profits) "Today" franchise. There are several theories-put forth in a thorough New York Times piece by Bill Carter-about why the morning show, so dominant for so many years, is under pressure from ABC's revitalized "Good Morning America." Chief among them is that "Today's" decline can be traced to the promotion a year ago of its longtime executive producer, Jeff Zucker, to the top of NBC's entertainment division.

With all respect for Zucker-and I've admired his accomplishments for years-here's another theory. "Today" has lost ground because it is shameless in its relentless plugs for often-marginal books, films and (NBC) TV shows, and viewers can no longer stomach the manufactured hype.

In my column two weeks ago, I wrote about the "Harry Potter" phenomenon and how much the success of the film is due to the marketing behind it. "Today" is often guilty of serving as a platform for such promotion, I noted, but conceded that the harm is limited as long as viewers know what they're in for. If they don't like it, they can change the channel. It now appears quite a number of them have done exactly that. According to the Times, "Today" now draws only about 900,000 more viewers on average than "GMA," compared with a lead of 2 million in the past.

My girlfriend Chris let me know as soon as she read my last column that I had let "Today" off the hook too lightly. That became more apparent when I read Bill Carter's piece, and clearer still the next day after an online column by TV Guide's J. Max Robins detailed a questionable marketing pact between "Today" and Amazon.com. Robins cited an example involving an interview on "Today" with author William Bennett about his new book. An Ama-zon.com commercial plugging the book ran immediately after the chat. It steered viewers to a site where they could buy the book but didn't reveal, Max wrote, "that 10% of each sale of the Bennett book purchased from the special Web site will go to NBC."

When "Today" goes over the top in its plugs for a particular entertainment product, I have often suspected that it is related to a marketing relationship that is not disclosed to viewers. It might explain why so many interviews with entertainers seem to be followed directly by commercials for their latest products. It might explain how producers justify devoting five straight days to interviews with the stars of films destined to be in video stores within weeks of their release dates.

As for breathless promotion of its own network's fare, that's a sin of which all of the morning shows-and many other conglomerate-owned media vehicles-are guilty. Anecdotally, "Today" seems guiltier than its rivals in this regard.

I tested my theory on Max Robins, who has covered TV for well over a decade. "It's hard to quantify," Max said, "but as [morning shows] increasingly become promotional vehicles as opposed to news and information vehicles, consciously or subconsciously viewers may be tuning them out. It may just be too much. It may feel too much like an infomercial."

Max has had off-the-record conversations with people associated with some of the morning shows about the issue. "They say that if the marketing and promotion powers that be [at the corporate parent] had their way, there would be even more of this. There would be two or three times as much."

To network suits, there can appear to be plenty of upside and little apparent danger in blurring the line when ratings are strong. But it is a free market. If "Today" and its competitors don't draw the line voluntarily, their audiences will draw it for them. At risk are millions of viewers and hundreds of millions in profits.

"We vote with our remotes," Max noted, "and we have lots of options."

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