As TV Changes, Matt Lauer's Ouster Isn't the Quake It Could Have Been

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Matt Lauer on the set of 'The Today Show' in September 2017.
Matt Lauer on the set of 'The Today Show' in September 2017. Credit: Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Matt Lauer's sudden dismissal from NBC's "Today" isn't likely to cause the same disruption that it once would have.

Allegations of sexual misconduct against the longtime morning host rocked the media world—not to mention his co-hosts, by all appearances—but Lauer's firing won't make a meaningful impact on viewership or advertiser demand, industry executives say.

"In our observation, anchor changes have traditionally had little to no impact on ratings," says Brian Hughes, senior VP of audience intelligence and strategy at Magna, the intelligence and strategy unit of IPG Mediabrands. "At any rate, it would be impossible to separate any impact from the organic viewing changes that are already occurring."

There are bigger forces at work, in other words, than TV hosts.

Look at nighttime cable news, where solo anchors should exert even more influence over their shows' ratings.

After O'Reilly

Fox News lost two of three prime-time anchors in three months earlier this year when Bill O'Reilly was fired amid sexual harassment allegations and Megyn Kelly took a job with NBC News. While Fox News saw a decline in audiences, it likely reflects a range of factors—and in any event hasn't changed the longtime balance of power in cable news.

Fox News averaged 2.8 million viewers in prime time during the first quarter of 2017, the last quarter before O'Reilly was forced out as well as a time of frenzied interest in the new Trump presidency. It averaged 2.4 million viewers in the second quarter of the year, when Tucker Carlson took over O'Reilly's time slot, and 2.2 million in the third quarter. In the 25-to-54-year-old demographic that matters to the news business and its advertisers, the Fox News prime-time audience declined from 580,000 in the first quarter to 436,000 in the third.

In comparison, MSNBC averaged 1.6 million total viewers (389,000 in the news demo) in the second quarter and 1.8 million (384,000 in the demo) in the next. CNN averaged 1.1 million people in both the second and third quarters; its demo audience grew from 370,000 in the second quarter to 379,000 in the third. Fox News' rivals held up better, that is, but remain far behind the leader.

In the morning broadcast wars, "Today" has trailed ABC's "Good Morning America" in total viewers since April 2012, when "GMA" broke a 16-year winning streak for "Today." But NBC still dominates in the 25-to-54 demo, against which it sets its guarantees for advertisers. "Today" just marked its 99th consecutive week winning that demo, averaging 1.5 million adults 25 to 54, compared to 1.4 million for "GMA."

Given the narrow margin, if Lauer's departure is to make a difference one way or another, it should materialize in the demo rating rather soon.

Falling stars

But more broadly, morning shows are experiencing audience losses no different than the rest of the TV business as competition grows, more people time-shift and viewership moves to platforms that are hard to measure.

Even with Lauer on board at great expense—NBC signed a new $20 million-a-year contract with him last year—"Today" has lost 16 percent of its total audience in the past five years: It averaged 3.9 million viewers in the third quarter this year, down from 4.6 million in the same quarter of 2012.

"GMA" is down 15 percent in total audience, to 4 million in the third quarter this year from 4.8 million five years earlier.

In the key demo, moreover, "Today" is off 26 percent and "GMA" has fallen 28 percent.

Syracuse University pop culture professor Robert Thompson says Lauer's departure means less today than it would have 10 or 15 years ago.

"Even if none of this stuff had happened, his time at the 'Today' show was probably nearing the end any way," Thompson says. "I don't think his presence there was as crucial as back in the heyday."

Still, firing Lauer leaves NBC with more vacancies than just his job on "Today." He had just come off covering Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade for the Peacock Network for the 20th consecutive year and was on deck to cover Wednesday night's tree lightening ceremony in Rockefeller Center.

Lauer has also typically been involved in NBC's coverage of the Olympics, which begin again in February from Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Morning still matters

NBC executives were already contending with the 9 a.m. hour of "Today," where Megyn Kelly has struggled to live up to expectations since taking it over in September.

For advertisers, morning TV has become an increasingly sought-after part of their TV spend. Thanks to the daily news cycle surrounding the Trump administration, news and morning TV received more attention from marketers during the summer's upfront ad haggle, when TV networks look to sell a bulk of their commercial time for the new season. While marketers typically purchase more popular prime-time fare first, this year some were placing their budgets in morning shows ahead of evening scripted and reality series. The segment was helped by Procter & Gamble's shift back into TV as well as an increase in spending by pharmaceuticals.

Barring the revelation of a far-reaching cover up at NBC, where more people knew about Lauer's alleged behavior but remained silent, for Madison Avenue it should all be business as usual, according to several media buyers, who praised NBC for taking decisive, apparently swift action.

"Today" pulled in $509 million in ad sales in 2016, easily topping ABC's "Good Morning America," which fetched $402 million and "CBS This Morning" with $177 million, according to Kantar.

Morning TV is not only a cash cow for broadcasters, but also an important promotional vehicle for other programming on the network. Stars from prime time shows often appear as guests on morning programs.

"The 'Today' show has been around since the 50s, it's an established brand and has seen the departure of hosts many time before, so this won't make it go away," Thompson says.

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