NBC's morning TV franchise has become adept at leveraging the network's coverage of the Olympic Games. Every two years viewers can count on emotional athletes and their families and friends stopping by the remote set of the program on the Olympics site to share the glory.
"Today" always gets first crack at interviews with the medal winners and a ratings boost from the large number of Olympic viewers watching NBC the night before. This year should be no different when the program originates from Pyeongchang, South Korea, starting Monday. The network's 18 nights of Winter Olympics coverage begins Thursday night. The opening ceremony for the Games airs Friday.
There is more on the line than usual this year due to a wrenching change "Today" went through Nov. 28, when longtime co-anchor Matt Lauer was fired over his alleged sexually inappropriate behavior with an employee. During the two Olympic weeks, a larger audience will sample Lauer's replacement, Hoda Kotb, a long-timer on the lighter late morning hours of the "Today" franchise, who joined Savannah Guthrie for the 7-9 a.m. hours. She was officially named as his replacement Jan. 2.
Any longtime "Today" viewer who has not fully absorbed the anchor change will surely notice it when the program is at the Olympics; Lauer was a fixture at every one since 2000.
But Guthrie and Kotb head to the Games with some ratings wind at their backs. Surprisingly, after Lauer's departure, "Today" won in the ratings six straight weeks. ("Today" has led in the 25-to-54 age group sought most by TV news advertisers for more than a year).
The victories have helped "Today" become the most-watched morning program for the 2017-18 TV season with an average of 4.32 million viewers, edging ABC's "Good Morning America" (4.31 million), while "CBS This Morning" is third with 3.6 million. "GMA" has been closing in again, winning the week of Jan. 29 to Feb. 2 by 91,000 viewers, the widest margin since Lauer left.
A representative for "Good Morning America" declined to comment on the ratings race.
Even as the race tightens again, Guthrie and Kotb say they are gratified viewers have not abandoned the program since Lauer's 20-year run abruptly ended. Unexpected changes to the habit-driven morning programs can be a jolt to the ratings, which matters for a program that generates $500 million a year in ad revenue for NBC.
"I'm glad that people like this partnership and they are sticking with us," Guthrie said in an interview in an interview with The Times from the 'Today' studio in Manhattan. "On the street people are saying, 'I'm so thrilled about you and Hoda and we're rooting for you.' They tell us it feels like two friends are getting to do their jobs together. That's how we feel about it too."
Guthrie and Kotb are the first all-female duo to serve as the main anchors of the 66-year-old franchise, and they are aware of its significance, especially as the Time's Up movement pushes for greater representation of women across the media business.
Kotb said a TV reporter recently visiting the program told her how her 8-year-old daughter pointed at the "Today" screen to note that two women were anchoring the show, instead of the typical male-female morning pairing.
"It struck us that it's no longer going to be weird," Kotb said. "Now that it's happened, it will be a normal thing for kids growing up. It's not going to be interesting and new anymore."
Guthrie added: "We look forward to it not being remarkable."
"Today" also has its first woman executive producer for the 7 to 9 a.m. hours in Libby Leist, who has been with the program for five years and took over the top job last month. She came up through NBC's Washington bureau, bringing a harder news background to the program than her predecessor, Don Nash.
Leist did not reveal any plans to change the direction for "Today," which is often challenged by the need to balance hard news with softer, feel-good content that many viewers look for in morning TV. Although she likes the variety the program offers, news is her priority.
"We're going to be a show that goes after the news," Leist said. "Everything else is a cherry on top."