Couric vs. Palin in the morning TV smackdown

When Sarah Palin turned up as a guest host on NBC's "Today" this week — grinning amid a pile of newspapers, raiding the hair products in Matt Lauer's dressing room — the stunt drew outrage from some quarters. Jon Stewart even called it "a detriment" to the country.

But if the NBC bosses are ashamed of themselves, they're not letting it show. "It was great morning television, honestly — in the best tradition of the 'Today' show," Jim Bell, executive producer of TV's No. 1 morning show, said of the former Alaska governor in a phone chat. "She's someone who can talk about politics; she's interesting to people. It was one of the better shows in my seven years here."

It was also a great way to stick it to ABC and "Good Morning America," which was hoping for a ratings breakout this week by having Katie Couric guest host, filling in for the vacationing Robin Roberts. The fact that Couric spent 17 years at "Today" — and also that she had a memorable interview run-in with Palin during the 2008 presidential campaign — made the notion of a morning smackdown irresistible. (According to Bell, Palin was not paid for her work, although NBC did have to obtain permission from Fox News, where she has a contract.)

But more is at stake than just a week's worth of goofy rivalry. Morning TV is a major profit center for the broadcast networks and perhaps the last place where their supremacy over cable is unquestioned. Journalistically, the a.m. shows also drive news headlines throughout the day. It's always been a pressure-cooker, but emotions lately are surging as high as ever, with some intriguing possible personnel changes that include Ryan Seacrest on the horizon. And those could break the grip of rankings that have been locked in place for years.

"Today" has been the leader for a very long time — 850 straight weeks, or more than 16 years, by NBC's reckoning. But "GMA" has been chipping away at that advantage in recent months under cohosts Roberts and George Stephanopoulos. For the first quarter of 2012, "GMA" narrowed the ratings gap to the smallest in seven years, averaging 4.9 million viewers compared with "Today's" 5.4 million, according to Nielsen (the recently revamped "CBS This Morning" lagged a distant third, with 2.5 million).

Ben Sherwood, the dynamic chief of ABC News, has made ending NBC's morning dominance a priority, and the message has spread through the ranks. "We all feel the same way," Tom Cibrowski, senior executive producer of "GMA," said. "We've got to beat 'Today.'"

It's easy to see what's driving the quest. Morning shows are relatively cheap to produce, at least compared with scripted programming. And "Today" collects a sizable premium in advertising rates simply because it's

No. 1. A 30-second spot on "Today" can sell for roughly $50,000, compared with just $35,000 on "GMA," according to Jon Swallen, senior vice president for research at Kantar Media in New York. For 2011, "Today" logged $484 million in commercial ad time sold compared with $298 million for "GMA," Kantar estimated. (That doesn't include the third hour of "Today" in the 10 am hour.)

NBC can also use "Today" to sell ad packages that help move commercial time during the network's low-rated prime-time hours, Swallen said. And the fact that morning audiences skew heavily female has made NBC the master of the demographic for years.

Working in NBC's favor is the fact that viewer preferences tend to change slowly in the morning — unlike in prime time, which constantly has large blocks of programs shifting around.

"People are viewing out of habit and familiarity," Swallen said of the morning shows. "Once you establish leadership … you have the opportunity to hang on to it for a while."

One of the few opportunities to break the logjam comes during a changing of the guard. And that's part of what ABC has pinned its hopes on. After all, "Today" was shaken badly in the late 1980s after Deborah Norville was viewed as the interloper who drove cohost Jane Pauley from the program.

Over the last year, clouds of uncertainty have gathered around "Today" cohosts Lauer and Ann Curry. The latter has earned some scathing reviews for being too wooden to host the nation's top morning show. Last week the website Gawker confidently predicted she would be fired. One insider insisted that was not the case, though NBC officials wouldn't comment on the situation.

Meanwhile, Lauer has been engaged in an epic negotiation over his contract, which expires at the end of this year. The host is reportedly seeking at least a 50% hike in his $17-million annual paycheck. One knowledgeable TV agent said the deal is already essentially done; however, NBC has yet to announce anything. This has led to an outpouring of speculation, including that "American Idol"host Ryan Seacrest might end up in Lauer's chair. On Wednesday's "Today," it was announced that Seacrest will instead, as part of a new overall deal with NBC, handle some Olympics chores for the show.

The intrigue is enough for ABC to seize on. "Morning viewers don't like transitional periods for any program," Cibrowski said.

That may be so. But the ratings results so far this week prove the wisdom of Cibrowski's observation that morning TV is a marathon, not a sprint.

For all the endless attention paid to the Couric-Palin battle, "Today" is still on top. Just like it was last week and last year.

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