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EntertainmentColumnistsVerne Gay

Don't just blame Matt Lauer for 'Today' dip

Matt Lauer attends the

Matt Lauer attends the "Today" show 60th anniversary celebration at the Edison Ballroom in Manhattan. (Jan. 12, 2012) Credit: AP

The media have been pounding on Matt Lauer -- a front-page story last week in The New York Times; tabloid reports about his imminent ouster -- but what's really going on with the great "Today" slump??

First, Lauer is not the reason for the collapse of "Today." Oh, sure, as the $25-million man, he must shoulder some of the blame -- that's what he gets paid for. But he's not the only reason.

Let's go to the bullets:

* Ann Curry's ouster has had little to do with the decline of "Today." Of course, it was handled poorly, but not nearly as poorly as when Jane Pauley was pushed out the window for Deborah Norville in 1990. That was a catastrophe. There was an immediate abandonment of "Today" by viewers in the wake of The Other Woman scandal.

What's happening now has been gradual viewer abandonment. In fact, viewers had been dropping steadily ever since Curry became co-anchor of "Today" in June 2011. Week after week, "Good Morning America" was adding viewers during her run; week after week, "Today" was shedding them. A stark and representative example: Mid-March last year, "Today" was down 12 percent from the same time a year before, and "GMA" was up 4 percent.

Within a month -- April 16, to be exact -- "GMA" won the crown for the first time in 16 years.

* Viewers had been cooling to "Today" even while Meredith Vieira was anchoring. Say what? In fact, just as Vieira was leaving -- June 2011 -- total morning viewership was up over 1 million viewers compared to a year before. Why? Because "GMA" was putting up its best numbers in four years while "Today" was essentially flat. In fact, the May just before Vieira left, "GMA" was smoking -- it had just had its best May sweeps in five years.

* "Today's" gradual decline accompanied NBC's slow-motion implosion in prime time. While network prime-time performance is not as much a factor here as it was back in the '80s, it's still key because a terrible prime-time performance means a diminished opportunity to promote the morning program. It's so bad that Univision is beating NBC in prime time these days. How the heck can you promote the morning if no one's watching at night?

So what is conclusion can be drawn from all this?

Simple: More viewers like "Good Morning America" than "Today." Why? Back to the bullets:

* Viewers like -- arguably love -- Robin Roberts, who recently emerged from a wrenching, life-threatening ordeal.

* They like the show's energy, which is several hundred megawatts higher than that of "Today."

* They like this "family" better. "GMA" has done a vastly superior job of selling that phony "we're all just a family here!" vibe. It's essential for morning TV, and every mistake "Today" makes in this regard, "GMA" has capitalized on simply by doing what it keeps doing.

* They like the show's sense of immediacy. "GMA," for example, often brings the audience right into the studio; at "Today," their noses are pressed up against the window.

* They like the content. Sure, it's more tabloidy, but it's not as though "Today" doesn't have its share of schlock, too.

* They like George Stephanopoulos. He gives it gravitas -- even when he's interviewing a "Dancing With the Stars" cast member.

Conclusion. "Today" is in second place because "GMA" has done a much better job of attracting viewers. It's that simple.

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