After the New York Post's latest salvo in its entertaining campaign to oust Matt Lauer as co-host of "Today" -- I think they've got him anchoring "Sesame Street" when his current contract ends -- I figured it's time to finally come to Matt's defense.
After all, he and NBC are sure doing a winning job of that. Someone had better step up before he does join Big Bird on the Street.
Here are the facts, and while they're not as much fun as speculation, they do shed some light on what's happening here.
First, Matt Lauer is not the reason for "Today's" collapse. 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 is not the reason "Today" has collapsed. Of course it was handled poorly, but not nearly as poorly as when Jane Pauley was pushed out the window for Deborah Norville. That was a catastrophe. There was an immediate abandonment of "Today" by viewers in the wake of The Other Woman scandal. This has been gradual viewer abandonment.
* Viewers had been dropping steadily ever since Ann became co-anchor of "Today" last June. Week after week "GMA" was adding viewers during her run; week after week, "Today" was shedding them. A stark and representative example: This week last year, "Today" was down 12 percent from the same week a week 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. The victory was simply tied to the brutal fact that it had been steadily adding viewers for months and months and months, while "Today" had been losing them. That's basic arithmetic.
* Viewers had been cooling to "Today" even while Meredith Vieira was anchoring. Say WHAT!? In fact, just as Meredith was leaving -- June 2011 -- total morning viewership was up over one million viewers. Why? Because "GMA" was putting up its best numbers in four years while "Today" was essentially flat. In fact, the May just before Meredith left, "GMA" was smoking - it had just had its best May sweep in five years.
* "Today's" gradual decline accompanied NBC's slow-motion implosion in prime. While network prime-time performance is not as much a factor here as it was back in the (say) the '80s, it's still a key factor because a terrible prime-time performance means a diminished opportunity to promote the morning program. Jeez, Univision is beating NBC in prime these days. How the heck can you promote the morning if no one's watching at night?
So what is the conclusion to be drawn from all this?
Simple: More viewers like "Good Morning America" than "Today."
Back to the bullets:
- They like - arguably love - Robin Roberts who just emerged from a wrenching, life-threatening ordeal.
- They like the show's energy, which is several hundred megawatts higher than "Today's."
- 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 upon 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 tabloid schlock too.
- They like George Stephanopoulos. He gives it gravitas - even when he's interviewing a "DWTS" cast member.
Final conclusion: "Today" is in second place because "GMA" has done a much better job of attracting viewers. It's that simple.