NBCs Today Show

Thursday, September 12, 2013

NBC's Today show pins hopes for new dawn on orange relaunch

From The Guardian

New British boss of NBC News outlines vision for struggling flagship show as mix of 'news, agenda-setting interviews and humanity'

On Monday at 7am, when the early risers among the Today show's 4.6 million viewers tune in for their morning fix on NBC, they may have to rub their eyes to confirm what they are seeing. The familiar faces of Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie will still be there, but gone will be the chilly blue sets behind them. Instead, the screen will resonate with the warm orange glows of an American sunrise.

That, in any case, is how Today's new set designers and beleaguered editors are praying it will be seen. It will be the first major overhaul of the show's look in seven years and, coming as it does at a time of intense stress for the show, a 61-year-old US media legend, a great deal will be riding on it.

Not least for Deborah Turness, president of NBC news, who is only five weeks into one of the most challenging and pressurised jobs in media. This summer she crossed the Atlantic to become the first woman in such an exalted position at NBC, having cracked a similar glass ceiling when she headed up ITV News in her native UK.

On Thursday she appeared in Studio 1A, the Today show's hallowed home on a street corner of the Rockefeller Building in mid-town Manhattan, to give a sneak peek of the spanking new set and, incidentally, to talk to the Guardian about her early experiences of making the transition from British to American TV news.

"This is one of the most beautiful sets I've been involved in in television," she said to an assembled crowd that included Lauer and Guthrie, Today's anchors, and supporting crew.

Sunrise is the theme and orange the color that runs through the new-look Today, from the orange sofa where the anchors will recline to the new Today logo in orange and a fresh feature of the show - an "Orange Room", where viewers will be encouraged to interact with the programme through Twitter, Facebook and other social media. The segment will be anchored by a new host, Carson Daly, whose addition to the team was announced earlier in the day.

Pictures of the American sunrise, captured on cameras specially set up on rooftops across the country and invited in from viewers, will be screened through the set on large plasma screens, the images moving West as the morning progresses.

"This set opens a new partnership between the Today show and the American sunrise," Turness quipped. "We are going to lean in more to the sunrise."

Sunrise is a fitting symbol for the Today show, and not just because of its early scheduling. Having taken some bruising knocks in the past year, a new dawn is precisely what the show desperately needs.

For the past 55 weeks it has been toppled from its customary No1 place among morning TV news programmes by an upstart, ABC's Good Morning America. Before last summer, Today had enjoyed a run of top ratings that stretched unbroken for 16 years.

The trigger of Today's inglorious decline is well known: it all began with the tearful departure of Matt Lauer's co-host Ann Curry, whose dismissal was cack-handedly managed and cost the programme, almost overnight, some 600,000 viewers, first place in the ratings and millions of dollars in ad revenues. GMA, hosted by the breezy pairing of Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos, has been the beneficiary.

Turness took time out from her presentation of orange sunrises to emphasise to the Guardian that the idea that Today had lost viewers to GMA on the back of the Curry affair was based on a misunderstanding. In the run-up to the set design, NBC carried out intensive research into ratings going back 15 years, she said, in the course of which it was discovered that only 10% of the viewers who had abandoned Today last year had found a new perch in GMA.

"That fact alone changed the whole perception of what this was about," she said.

The addition of Daly to host the Orange Room will doubtless cause speculation about a succession plan for Lauer, but Turness appears to have decided that any significant upheaval of the top-rank presenters would be more trouble than it is worth, for now at least.

Turness sees the positioning of Today as somewhere in the middle of the three main network morning shows, between the lightness of GMA and the emphasis on hard news at CBS This Morning. "We are all about a mix," she said, "of news, agenda-setting interviews and humanity. We care about the issues that impact our viewers out there and we are on their side."

After just five weeks in the hot seat, is hesitates to pronounce too firmly about the differences between British and American television news. But she gives some pointers to her thinking, and in doing so gives the first indications about her vision for NBC News.

On the other hand, she thinks US television news can learn from its peers across the pond, in terms of story-telling. "One of the things I hope to support here is bringing back the magic of telling stories, of giving correspondents full ownership of their stories from start to finish of the process."

Turness also thinks that the US news media is overly focused on the Washington Beltway and insufficiently engaged with the lives and political passions of ordinary voters out in the heartlands. She gives the example of the debate on possible US military action in Syria, which has been dominated on TV by talking heads in the capital. By contrast, she refocused NBC's coverage to take in townhall meetings in Phoenix, Arizona and to talk to households around the states, to give a feel for how the wider America was responding.

Though Today is the cash-cow of NBC, supporting with its $500m annual revenue many other parts of the network, Turness insisted that she was not under pressure to turn around the show's ratings, and thus its attractiveness to advertisers, by any deadline.

"It's not like that," she said. "My role here is to make shows zing, to improve the content, to understand our audiences better, to restructure the business to make us more digital. This is a long game."

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