2012 was the year that morning TV got turned upside down. ABC's Good Morning America beat NBC's Today in the weekly ratings for the first time in 16 years. And NBC publicly ousted new host Ann Curry from the co-anchor chair, a move that Matt Lauer was publicly blamed for (at least in part) and that Today has, nearly a year later, yet to recover from. But that's not all: over at CBS, a newsier take on morning talk, CBS This Morning, was launched in January, and on ABC, Robin Roberts revealed her diagnosis of MDS and took a leave of absence in October to get a bone marrow transplant. New York Times media critic Brian Stelter has been following it all closely: his new book is Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV.
Despite everything that went on, Ann Curry's departure was by far the lowlight of the year. After 15 years with Today, Curry got the job after the departure of Meredith Viera. "The obvious choice was Ann Curry," Stelter told Q host Jian Ghomeshi in a recent interview. "The network decided to promote her because they didn't want to take any risks. They didn't want to be creative. They didn't think outside their current cast. They just did what was easy." And they paid for it. Curry's lack of chemistry with co-anchor Matt Lauer was evident from the beginning. Viewers tuned out and in April, Today lost the top slot to GMA. NBC knew they had to make a change. But how they did it would resonate even worse with their audience than hiring Curry in the first place. They rushed the decision, resulting in an extremely awkward, tearful and much discussed goodbye (which you can see in the player below).
Why wasn't the transition from Curry to her eventual replacement, Savannah Guthrie, more seamless? "They made her feel rushed," Stelter said. "They actually gave her months to think about leaving but in her heart, in her mind, she felt she was being yanked off the stage rather abruptly."
NBC couldn't afford to keep her on the air any longer. Network morning television is a billion dollar a year industry. "Second place is a deeply embarrassing place to be if you're a morning show," Stelter said. Slipping from #1 to #2 mean a loss of $50 million dollars in revenue over the course of the year. And since the morning programs are expected to subsidize the rest of the network's news coverage -- and news divisions are expected to pay for themselves -- every dollar brought in before noon is essential to a network's success.
In today's ever-changing media environment, this success is more important than ever. Morning TV shows thrive thanks to their successful mix of entertainment and lifestyle programming, news programming and their personalities. And with more and more places viewers can get news and entertainment programming, the third part of the equation -- the personalities -- becomes the key to the future of these shows.
"A lot of people, when they wake up in the morning, would never allow their friends into their home when they are half-dressed and before they've eaten breakfast and before they've brushed their teeth, but they do allow the morning shows into their homes," Stetler points out. "That's a form of companionship that's really powerful."