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Can ‘Today’ stay on top after its Olympics boost in ratings?

Billy Bush now co-anchors the 9 a.m. slot

Billy Bush now co-anchors the 9 a.m. slot on "Today." Photo Credit: Invision/Richard Shotwell

At this moment, NBC’s “Today” is once again TV’s top-rated morning show. That’s at “this moment.” What about Thursday — when the first full week of post-Olympics numbers come out? The week after?

Or that week (in September) when Michael Strahan officially joins “Good Morning America?”

But consider: If “Today’s” turnaround is permanent (or as “permanent” as anything can be in television) then this marks a true milestone for TV’s longtime morning champ — which ceded the lead to “GMA” four years ago. To the morning leader goes bragging rights, prestige and profits. For “Today” and “GMA,” the stakes could not be higher. Some questions (and answers):

Will “Today” remain at the top, long after the Olympics glow has waned?

Let’s go way out on a limb here, and declare with courageous conviction . . . umm, probably? To an extent, this question is academic anyway. “Today” has already been the leader all year in the 25-to-54 demographic. That’s the Ol’ Yeller of demos — reliable, steady, habit-bound. Get the 25-54s in your corner, and they aren’t going anywhere. Nevertheless, it’s much sexier to say you have won the total viewer crown, and — up until the Olympics — “GMA” still (barely) held that distinction. “Today” easily beat “GMA” during the second week of the Olympics (5.1 million total viewers to 4.2 million). But that margin hardly seems insurmountable, or even all that impressive given the huge Olympics boost. Hence our waffly answer — “umm, probably?”

What about Strahan?

ABC botched Strahan’s “Live with Kelly and Michael” exit, but we’ve all forgotten about that. The much larger issue is on-screen chemistry, or on-screen musical chairs. For example, after Strahan was named co-host last spring, Lara Spencer was rumored to be out. In fact, she is out — sidelined by hip-replacement surgery, which she underwent in mid-August. But what about George Stephanopoulos? “Three” tends to be a crowd on anchor desks. So will the “GMA” desk eventually be occupied by just two — Strahan and Robin Roberts? Another curious wrinkle: Strahan, who runs his own production company, is developing a prime-time cop series, per the Hollywood Reporter, and guess who will play the cop? When will No. 92 have time for his day job?

Of course, no one really, really knows what’s going to happen at “GMA,” but inherent uncertainty never plays particularly well on morning shows.

Advantage, “Today.”

What just happened to Willie Geist?

Geist, the erstwhile co-anchor of “Today’s” third hour (now back full time on “Sunday Today” and MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”), has been reportedly — per Variety — exploring his options at ABC and CBS before he signs a new contract at NBC. The loss of the third hour gig would appear to be a demotion for the well-regarded Geist, although he insisted it was his decision to leave. Nevertheless, someone somewhere has apparently decided that Geist may not be the candidate to eventually replace Matt Lauer after all.

In fact, that “someone” may have been you, the viewer. The third hour has been the notable laggard in “Today’s” march back to dominance — not good because the 9 a.m. hour is both the farm team and the future. It’s also the place where Geist was going to be groomed before an eventual move to the flagship. Don’t count him out — he’ll still have a supporting role on the flagship, in addition to “Sunday Today.” But the succession is no longer a lock, and perhaps that’s why he’s been exploring his options.

So Billy Bush will replace Matt Lauer instead?

Not so fast, pardner! Lauer’s going nowhere — another possible reason why Geist is exploring his options. Lauer will celebrate his 20th anniversary as “Today” co-anchor next year — and it will be quite the celebration if “Today” does retain the total viewer crown. But change is coming, as it must for all shows, and Bush — formerly of “Access Hollywood” and the new co-anchor of 9 a.m. with Tamron Hall — may be part of it.

Emphasis on “may”: Bush got the Ryan Lochte “robbery” scoop at the Olympics, only to later mix it up on live air with Al Roker, who scolded the newbie for having been lied to. Lauer later big-footed Bush, by commandeering the Lochte mea culpa interview. This flurry of activity was hardly auspicious for Bush.

But the bigger picture: He’s a highly skilled interviewer, with an easy on-air presence. He’ll need to build his hard news cred, but if he can move the 9 a.m. needle, all will be forgiven and forgotten.

What else has “Today” done to regain the lead?

You’ll notice Natalie Morales has been shipped off to the west coast (to “Access Hollywood”). Nothing personal, Natalie. It’s the role you were playing — as news anchor. In one of the most significant moves of all, “Today” has quietly expunged the news anchor job. Except for a brief moment back in the early ‘70s, the news anchor role has been a permanent “Today” fixture for over 60 years. Over those years, those news anchors have framed the broadcast, and focused it. They’ve spelled the co-hosts a breather. They’ve even become co-hosts themselves. (Lauer himself is the best example of that). But “Today” wants flexibility, and those news breaks are stodgy and old-fashioned. Besides, 9 a.m. is where future hosts are now supposed to come from. “GMA” meanwhile has held onto the role.

Once again, advantage “Today.”

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