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Morning TV wars heat up as NBC and CBS gain on ABC’s ‘Good Morning America’

"Good Morning America's" Michael Strahan, Robin Roberts, George Stephanopoulos and Lara Spencer at ABC's Times Square studios in New York on Dec. 16.
(ABC)

It took 16 years for ABC’s “Good Morning America” to end the historic streak by NBC’s “Today” as the most-watched program in morning television in 2012.

Toppling the mighty “Today” was so significant that Ben Sherwood, ABC’s news president at the time, was elevated to run parent company Disney’s entire TV operation in 2014.

But the race has tightened considerably over the last year. “Good Morning America” is still the most popular show overall in the 2016-17 TV season, averaging 4.66 to million viewers, compared with 4.56 million for “Today.”

But “Today” topped “GMA” during the week of Dec. 12 by 214,000 viewers, the NBC show’s third such win in the last six weeks, according to Nielsen. Also, “Today” has for more than a year led among the 25-to-54 age group most important to TV news advertisers. “GMA” is off 8% in the demographic this fall while NBC has remained flat. Last season, “GMA” was down 19%.

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Walt Disney Co.-owned ABC is also looking over its shoulder at “CBS This Morning.” The trio of Gayle King, Charlie Rose and Norah O’Donnell is up 6% this season to 3.69 million viewers. Among viewers ages 25 to 54, CBS is up 11% and 413,000 viewers behind “GMA” in the category — the network’s best competitive showing in the morning in more than 20 years.

The three programs are the most lucrative franchises for the broadcast networks, collectively taking in around $1 billion annually in ad revenue, a figure that has remained steady in recent years despite increased competition. Though the programs have significantly higher ratings than their cable counterparts, the availability of news on digital devices is poaching viewers who have long looked to the shows to start their day.

ABC’s continued ratings fall has led its competitors to question the wisdom of adding Michael Strahan — a football analyst and Kelly Ripa’s former cohost on the breezy daytime talk show “Live” — to GMA’s seasoned anchor team of George Stephanopoulos and Robin Roberts. Strahan, who moved to the program full-time in September, now joins the anchors at the top of the show when it leads with hard news. There has also been talk of more talent changes as ABC executives recently met with Fox News star Megyn Kelly and presented the idea of her joining the program when her contract is up next year.

Tom Cibrowski, senior vice president for ABC News programs, news gathering and special events, declined to comment on Kelly.

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Bringing that live studio audience in energized the 8 o’clock hour and created a new way to do morning television.

Tom Cibrowski, senior vice president for ABC News programs

“We are very committed to the team we have,” he said. “Robin is the most trusted person in America. George’s interviews made the most news throughout the presidential campaign. And we think Michael Strahan is an amazing force of nature in anything he does.”

“Good Morning America” got to first place as the upbeat alternative in the morning, and Strahan’s presence is meant to secure that positioning. “We did not hire him to be a journalist,” Cibrowski said. “Michael can ask all kinds of questions. He’s a curious, engaging human being and a fantastic television broadcaster.”

“GMA” has also recently added a studio audience to the second hour of the program, when the show shifts away from serious news and focuses on pop culture stories, consumer information and celebrity interviews.

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“We feel the changes we are making on the show are modernizing the show,” Cibrowski said. “Bringing that live studio audience in energized the 8 o’clock hour and created a new way to do morning television.”

“Good Morning America” producers may feel compelled to experiment a bit because “GMA” is not getting help from the network’s prime-time lineup. ABC is averaging 7.09 million viewers for its prime-time programming this season, compared with 10.37 million for CBS and 9.75 million for NBC. Adding to that disadvantage is NBC’s two nights of high-rated NFL football in prime time, which gives “Today” an additional promotional boost and an influx of viewers on the mornings after the games.

ABC’s drop may also reflect the fact that other shows are more consistent. After a few rocky years of personnel and management changes, NBC’s “Today” has stabilized with Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie. Both have recently signed new contracts that will keep the team intact for at least two more years.

“We’ve settled into a good groove,” said Noah Oppenheim, the executive in charge of “Today.” “The chemistry on the set has never been better. The morale around the building has never been higher.”

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“CBS This Morning” is also locking up its talent, recently giving a new multiyear deal to King. While published reports suggest that O’Donnell — currently in contract negotiations — is being eyed for a move to the “CBS Evening News,” it’s unlikely that the network would break up what has become the most successful morning team in its history.

CBS is seeing dividends from its decision five years ago to go with a newsier format in the morning — offering fewer softer features and no anchors dressed up in costume on Halloween as seen on the other shows.

“CBS This Morning” executive producer Ryan Kadro said the format is bringing in viewers who may have abandoned network morning shows because they were unsatisfied with the amount of serious news on them.

“I think there are some viewers that had become disillusioned with what was happening in the morning in the last decade,” he said. “I think they are coming back.”

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One major advertiser agrees. Toyota Motor Corp., once the sponsor of the outdoor concerts on “Today,” moved to “CBS This Morning” to attach its brand name to the “Eye Opener,” a fast-paced, 90-second news montage airing at the top of each hour. The company also has also bought the naming rights to the show’s green room, where upcoming guests are shown waiting to go on with the anchors.

“We knew going into it that ‘CBS This Morning’ was not the ratings leader and that was OK with us,” said John Lisko, executive communications director for Toyota’s ad agency, Saatchi & Saatchi Los Angeles. “We believed in getting involved with the brand. The ratings have increased and quality of the show has gotten even better. So we’re pleased with the relationship we have with them.”

stephen.battaglio@latimes.com

Twitter: @SteveBattaglio

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UPDATES:

Dec. 20, 1:30 p.m. This article was updated with new ratings data.

This article was originally published at 3 a.m. on Dec. 17.


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