NBC Announces a Face-Lift

Friday, September 13, 2013

NBC Announces a Face-Lift, and One New Face, for ‘Today’

From The New York Times

Tired of waking up in second place, the “Today” show is hoping that a new studio, a new logo, a new mission statement and a new cast member will help it regain the ratings ground it lost last year when Ann Curry was unceremoniously dismissed from the NBC morning show. 

Deborah Turness, the new president of NBC News, unveiled the changes to “Today” on Thursday and signaled that aside from the surprise addition of Carson Daly, no cast changes were planned. 

Every other aspect of the once-invincible morning show has come under severe scrutiny since it was eclipsed in the ratings by ABC’s “Good Morning America,” which recently celebrated a full year at No. 1. The internal debate has brought up intriguing questions about what television viewers do, and do not, want to see in the mornings, especially as more and more of them reach for their smartphone before their remote control when they wake up. 

 Ms. Turness, who took over the news division a little more than a month ago, has made the revitalization of “Today” her top priority. She has concluded that the viewers who abandoned “Today” last year are recoverable, and in private conversations she has drawn analogies to the joy of reuniting with an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend. 

 But the show has to woo them back — and on Thursday, in her first public comments, she said she knows that a fresh orange coat of paint alone won’t do it. Her three buzzwords for “Today” are substance, uplift and connection. 

“This is a content-led strategy,” Ms. Turness said. “And we have the right team and the best team to deliver that strategy.” 

Her comments may tamp down continued speculation in the TV industry about the futures of Matt Lauer, whose reputation was spoiled when Ms. Curry tearfully signed off in June 2012, and Savannah Guthrie, the woman who was pressed into service as Ms. Curry’s replacement. 

The female-centric “Today,” which was already slipping, lost about a quarter of its audience and became stuck in second place after Ms. Curry left; last week, “G.M.A.” had about 5.3 million viewers each day, about 750,000 more than “Today.” Among viewers ages 25 to 54, the ones coveted by advertisers, “G.M.A.” led by 118,000. 

That stubborn gap has cost NBC’s parent, Comcast, tens of millions of dollars in advertising revenue, much of which has shifted over to ABC’s parent company, the Walt Disney Company. It has also deeply damaged morale at “Today” and caused what one senior NBC News executive admitted have been “frantic” responses to the ratings crisis. 

Ms. Turness and her boss, the NBCUniversal News Group chairwoman Pat Fili-Krushel, are said to have concluded that removing any anchor right now would cause a further decline in the ratings. Instead, they are adding talent: Mr. Daly, the former host of MTV’s “TRL” who now is at the helm of the hit reality show “The Voice” for NBC, will be a regular presence on “Today” starting next Monday, updating anchors on what viewers are saying on the Internet. 

In a corner of the new set called the “Orange Room,” Mr. Daly will read messages from Twitter and Facebook and conduct online video chats with viewers. The producers of “Today” hope to have celebrities and newsmakers participate in the video chats after they appear on the television show. 

The social media emphasis of the “Orange Room” is a tacit acknowledgment of new media trends as well as a way, maybe, to lure former viewers back to NBC. The multimillion-dollar renovations to the famous street-side studio, known as Studio 1A at Midtown Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center, were sketched out before Ms. Turness arrived at the network, and on Thursday she portrayed it as merely one of several changes meant to make the show more welcoming. (The new set will debut on Monday, along with a new logo that resembles a sunrise.) 

“Today,” Ms. Turness said, will seek, or rather re-seek, a middle ground in morning television — not as celebrity-centric as “G.M.A.,” not as sober as “CBS This Morning.” “It is our territory to reconquer,” she told reporters at a press event at the new studio. 

Since arriving at NBC from Britain’s ITV, where she was the editor of ITV News, Ms. Turness has been in the “Today” control room virtually every morning. After the show, she frequently attends the 10 a.m. meeting with senior “Today” show staff members to discuss what segments were and were not on point. 

She has told them she wants to return to the show’s traditional strengths, like human interest stories and more agenda-setting interviews (as the show had on Aug. 22, when NBC played host to the abducted teenager Hannah Anderson’s first interview and the announcement that Bradley Manning wanted to live as a woman). The show, she has said, should inspire viewers as well as inform. “Even in the darkness, we will seek the light. That’s our promise,” she said Thursday. 

But Ms. Turness’s plan assumes that there is still room in the middle — which runs contrary to the trend of niche morning shows on channels like VH1 and NFL Network, and new alternatives on the Web. The more sweeping overhaul that some staff members have hoped for, one that would involve talent changes as well as risk-taking content, does not appear to be coming. 

The addition of Mr. Daly did restart an industry guessing game about who might succeed Mr. Lauer someday — something that viewers follow closely and speculate about constantly. 

Mr. Lauer, who has co-hosted “Today” since 1997, has a contract that runs at least through the end of 2014. Speculation about him leaving before then has diminished, and discussions within NBC News about grooming Ryan Seacrest or Anderson Cooper for his co-host chair have not come to fruition. Willie Geist, who joined the cast a year ago, is thought to be the top in-house candidate, and on Thursday some wondered if Mr. Daly was his new competition.

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