The jury is still out on the long-term effect Matt Lauer's firing will have on the ratings of NBC's "Today," but viewers were drawn to the program last week as the anchor's sexual harassment scandal unfolded.
According to Nielsen data for Nov. 27 through Friday, "Today" averaged 4.9 million viewers, topping ABC's "Good Morning America," which had 4.4 million. "CBS This Morning" was in third for the week with 3.5 million.
"Today" has long been the top-rated show among viewers ages 25 to 54, the audience advertisers seek when they buy commercials on news programs. But the NBC show typically finishes second to ABC's "Good Morning America" in overall audience.
In the 2017-18 TV season, "Good Morning America" still leads "Today" by a narrow 59,000 viewers. "GMA" is averaging 4.32 million viewers to "Today's" 4.27 million.
The last time "Today" beat "Good Morning America" in weekly viewership was Sept. 4 through 8.
Lauer — a fixture on "Today" since 1994 — was fired Nov. 28, after a female NBC employee filed a sexual harassment complaint against him.
The woman said Lauer engaged in inappropriate behavior throughout 2014. Other women have since reported incidents with Lauer, including one who accused him of sexually assaulting her in 2001.
"Today" co-anchor Savannah Guthrie broke the news about Lauer's dismissal on Wednesday's program. That episode's audience jumped to 5.7 million viewers — 1.5 million more than the previous day.
Interest in the story drove more viewers to "Today" on Thursday and Friday too. "Today" beat "GMA" every day of the week for the first time since December 2016.
NBC News executives will be watching the Nielsen numbers carefully in the coming weeks as the realization sinks in among faithful "Today" fans that Lauer is permanently gone.
Lauer's good-guy image has taken a major hit from the stories about his behavior toward women that have surfaced since his departure. But any change in the anchor chair of a morning program can be disruptive to viewers' habits.
The desire to maintain stability on "Today," which generates nearly $500 million a year in ad revenue for NBC, is a key reason the network kept giving contracts to Lauer that paid him more than $20 million annually.
With Lauer gone, Guthrie is co-ancohring the program with Hoda Kotb this week. Kotb and Craig Melvin, the co-anchor of the Saturday edition of "Today," are getting serious consideration as Lauer replacements.