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In an ongoing trench warfare saga, nobody likes getting beat.



Published: Thu, February 10, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



In an ongoing trench warfare saga, nobody likes getting beat.

By DAVID SEGAL

WASHINGTON POST

NEW YORK -- Mark Bracco is the entertainment producer for "Good Morning America." Tim Bruno has basically the same job for "Today." The two have met a couple times, and they were perfectly cordial. But each spends all day, every day, trying to throttle the other -- armed only with a telephone.

It can get ugly. Like it did a few weeks ago when Leonardo DiCaprio was up for grabs as a guest. He decided to weigh in on tsunami relief -- he'd just donated a huge sum and, well, he's got a movie to promote -- and he picked "Good Morning America." On Jan. 5, DiCaprio was talking live to Diane Sawyer who, to add drama to the moment, was conducting her half of the interview from Indonesia.

Over at "Today," you would have seen something a little duller: Matt Lauer, in a studio, interviewing an editor from Us Weekly and a celebrity fund-raising professional.

Both shows hate getting bested like that. Bruno called DiCaprio's publicist and made his disappointment loud and clear.

Emphasis on "loud."

"On a scale of one to 10, I'd call it a 91/2," says the publicist, Ken Sunshine.

Measured in volume or invective?

"Both," Sunshine says, chuckling. "But I think we're still talking."

It's an ongoing morning show trench war, a fight that proceeds inch by inch, segment by segment, movie star by movie star.

And lately, band by band. There are many different ways to track this blood feud, but none is better than keeping an eye on the shows' musical acts. For the music industry, it's a godsend. There might be hipper places out there in the broadcast ether, but they don't hand over an audience of about 5 million viewers, and they don't move the product in anything close to the same numbers.

"An artist can be buzz-worthy on MTV, but it's the morning shows that cross them into Middle America," says Chris Chambers, a publicity guy with the label BMG, who has worked with "GMA" and "Today." "It opens them up to a whole other audience."

Coup du jour

"Today," the undisputed morning show champ for nearly a decade, launched the mini-concert idea 10 years ago and features about 50 acts annually. But "GMA," the perennial No. 2, has made pop a priority. It's giving breaks to dozens of up-and-comers, such as the British R & amp;B singer Joss Stone, and snaring marquee acts. When Destiny's Child reunited, the group chose to play "GMA."

Coups like that are just one of many reasons that the "Today" vs. "GMA" smackdown is getting interesting. For years, "Today" crushed all comers, thanks to the Katie-and-Matt attack, one of the greatest tag-team television couples ever. (Credit Bryant Gumbel, too, who was with the show when it pulled into first place in 1995.) But the "Today" margin is shrinking.

CBS's "The Early Show," which Gumbel also hosted for a few years, runs a pretty distant third in the ratings, but has caused some of the shrinkage and it's on its way to becoming a genuine contender. It still trails "Today" by a couple million viewers, though.

"GMA," meanwhile, is turning in its best performance since it lost the top spot 10 years ago. The show trailed "Today" by 830,000 viewers the week of Jan. 17, down from a 1.34 million-viewer gap during the same time last year, according to Nielsen. "Today" can boast of an undefeated streak that inspires awe in television circles, but in the span of 12 months, its margin of victory has gotten much slimmer.

Whether we're talking about a tectonic shift or an aberration depends on whom you ask. Visit the set of "Today" and nobody appears remotely troubled. At the offices of "GMA," a team of perpetual silver medalists is beginning to see gold.

"We're getting closer and closer to No. 1, I think," Bracco says. "I'd like to be here when it happens."

Selling themselves

Observing "GMA" and "Today" from the sidelines -- in the studio -- everyone seems weirdly unruffled. The programs are like carnivals with news breaks and the productions breeze along like tumbling routines rehearsed for years. The strange part is the mix of celebrities who trundle through, hawking stuff.

One recent day, the celebrity list includes Jessica Simpson, the curvy blond singer with the live-on-television marriage to Nick Lachey. The couple sits smiling and rigid, fielding questions about tabloid reports that their marriage is in trouble.

"So, let's just start," Sawyer suggests, ready to fact-check all innuendo. "Let's go one by one. Getting divorced?"

"Absolutely not," Simpson says.

"No," adds Lachey, for emphasis.

"Getting separated?"

Simpson: "Absolutely not."

Lachey: "Nope."

This interview, painful as it might look to the untrained eye, is something Simpson requested. It's not terribly convincing as damage control, but it's great television. Later Simpson warbles through two songs. Her father, in the back of the studio, looks pleased. Here his daughter can reach a swath of listeners who just aren't available anywhere else, everyone from 10-year-olds to their grandparents.

Will this sell albums? Joe Simpson nods and smiles. "We wouldn't come here if it didn't sell albums."

Trying harder?

Bracco is a compact guy who seems as charged as a nine-volt battery. In his struggle against Bruno, he's at a disadvantage because "Today" can always promise more viewers. To counter that, Bracco hustles. His specialty is discovering the great band or singer well before the rest of the mainstream media do, then forging relationships with management, which turns into a "get" when the act catches fire.

"With Usher, 'GMA' was one of the first shows that supported him," says BMG's Chambers. "The week before Usher's last album came out, there was all this buzz about it opening at Number 1, and we started getting calls from everyone, including 'Today.' But by then, 'GMA' was already part of our rollout plan. Mark had been talking to us months before."

The spoils here are huge. Morning shows are money machines; "GMA" brings in about $300 million annually, and as the evening newscasts and newsmagazines frantically try to slow the exodus of viewers, the crowd in the morning is actually growing. Each new rating point is cash in the bank.

Exactly what moves viewers from one morning show to another is a mystery. All anyone knows is that migrations happen in tiny increments and everything else is theory -- something about the mix of stories, the chemistry of the hosts and a dozen other factors. Michael Bass, senior executive producer for "The Early Show," thinks the fortunes of the network have a lot to do with it, too.

Prime time assist

"'Desperate Housewives' has had a huge impact on 'GMA' this season," he says. Promos for "GMA" segments have been running constantly on the show, a breakout hit for ABC. "Women between the ages of 18 and 55 watch 'Desperate Housewives' in droves, and that's exactly who watches the morning shows."

Over at "Today," they have a different theory about the tightening morning show race: that it really isn't tightening. Don't look at short-term numbers, advises the show's executive producer, Tom Touchet. Take the long view. Check in a month from now. And he thinks too much of "GMA" is a knockoff of "Today."

"We take a left and they take a left; we take a right and they take a right," he says. "They can't pass us if they're following us."

"Today," like "GMA," unfolds without any sense of hurry. The control room looks like it could launch a satellite. Bruno is sitting upstairs. It turns out he's a lot like Bracco: smart, focused, super-literate in pop culture. He, too, has been busy.

"I already booked one act in May," he says as the show is being taped. A five-month lead time is nothing. He booked Sting a year in advance.

Bruno seems a little reluctant to admit he even knows Bracco's name. Which, it turns out, is very "Today." Producers here barely acknowledge the show. Touchet says he doesn't often watch it.

"We want to be No. 1 at NBC," Touchet explains. He views his true competition not as another morning show but as other news programs at his own network. He wants to beat other NBC shows to stories and the choice guests.

Over at "GMA," the executive producer is Ben Sherwood, an evening news veteran. He took over in April, instructed by his bosses to floor it to No. 1.

"The hard work of six years is paying off," he says, marking the date Sawyer and Charlie Gibson took over as co-anchors. "The gap gets smaller and smaller. I'll let the broadcast and the numbers speak for themselves."

The numbers have looked strikingly good for ABC in recent months. And "GMA" has actually beaten "Today" on a few mornings.




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