Today’s Wake-Up

It’s just past 8 a.m. on the set of ABC’s Good Morning America, and Samantha Finck is crying like a

It’s just past 8 a.m. on the set of ABC’s Good Morning America, and Samantha Finck is crying like a baby. She is a baby–Samantha is one-sixth of three separate sets of Finck twins appearing on the show today–and just minutes to air, she’s wailing so loudly the production assistants jam fingers in their ears.

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Then: Diane Sawyer to the rescue! The most glamorous interim anchor in network news tap-tap-taps onto the GMA set in snakeskin high heels and a mint green suit like the nanny of your dreams, carrying a stuffed bunny rabbit and an inflatable airplane. Ms. Sawyer wiggles the stuffed bunny and coos gently, but that baby just keeps crying. Then Samantha’s twin Stephen grabs the inflatable airplane and belts another Finck twin, Amanda, in the kisser. Now Amanda’s sobbing inconsolably. The place sounds like the William Morris agency at lunchtime.

That’s when it hits you: Why is Diane Sawyer–Nixon survivor, Brenda Starr look-alike, interviewer of Presidents, the most beautiful lips in network news, Bill Clinton’s lunch pal, Ms. Mike Nichols, the only person in news who would fit in at Oscar Night–still doing morning TV?

She … is … persevering! After three years of running in place, the once-woebegone Good Morning America has found what its staff believes to be an opening, a soft spot, and is making a run at the Today show. A week ago, on March 25, Ms. Sawyer and her colleague, Charlie Gibson–he’s still kicking, too–came within a Westchester suburb (65,000 people) of Today’s Katie Couric and Matt Lauer in the national ratings. Granted, it was the morning after ABC carried the Academy Awards–“If they get the Oscars five nights a week, they’ll have a great shot,” said Today show executive producer Jonathan Wald–but those pre-dawn wake-up alarms Ms. Sawyer hears every weekday are starting to pay off.

So Good Morning, America! Morning news is the last great competition in the broadcast-network news business, and all signs say it’s growing more intense. Late night is settled for a while, prime time is too spotty to be anybody’s one-on-one, but morning TV is as good a competition as sports–but it goes on every day. Audiences are big, the profits are big, stars are big. Everyone from Ms. Sawyer to ABC News president David Westin knows that screaming babies aren’t just cute television … they’re gold. They remind viewers of why they watch network TV, and executives know that once you’re there–at ABC or NBC or even … cbs–you may think of it as your regular home. All day and all night. That’s why Mr. Westin called GMA “critically important to ABC News.”

Today is still dominant, the most-watched show in the mornings by far, averaging about 6.2 million viewers per weekday, compared to GMA’s 4.8 million. Katie Couric and Matt Lauer remain the morning’s biggest stars. But they’re down about 3 percent in the ratings for the year and GMA is up 8 percent. Even the left-for-dead CBS Early Show, with cantankerous Bryant Gumbel–remember Bryant?–is showing signs of life, at 2.7 million viewers a day, up 6 percent.

“Today built a lead that could not be sustained,” said Steve Friedman, the ex-Today executive producer who took that show outside at 30 Rock and now produces Mr. Gumbel’s Early Show. “What you are seeing is two [rival] shows pretty much knowing what they are doing, and providing stiff competition.”

Ever since the late, great J. Fred Muggs wrapped an opposable thumb around Dave Garroway’s shirt collar and, legend has it, saved Today from an early extinction, network executives have realized there was money to be made in the morning. And until the 1970’s, the ground was littered with failed CBS and ABC competition–including Jack Paar, Walter Cronkite and Will Rogers Jr. But once the first version of Good Morning America achieved some success in the 1970’s with David Hartmann, and then had its own period of dominance in the 1980’s, there was a kind of profitable, reliable hierarchy on television: At NBC there was Bryant and Jane; ABC had David and Joan; CBS didn’t try. GMA wasn’t technically part of ABC News until five years ago–between Mr. Hartmann and Joan Lunden’s entertainment framework and the news segments, there was, said Ms. Sawyer, a “nice arranged marriage.”

The three morning shows in 2002 are no longer an arranged marriage. They are–even CBS’s Early Show–monsters. That’s true largely because of Today. At an estimated quarter-billion in revenue per year, Today is the most profitable show in network television, bigger for NBC than Friends or ER or even The Tonight Show. At $65 million over five years, Katie Couric earns more than Tom Brokaw–or Peter Jennings or Dan Rather. Today infuses every corner of the network. The network entertainment president, Jeff Zucker, used to run Today. Mr. Wald, Today’s new executive producer, left Mr. Brokaw’s program to run the morning show.

The big shots used to go in the other direction: Former Today hosts Frank McGee, John Chancellor and Mr. Brokaw graduated to the NBC Nightly News, as though they were going north to the majors. So, needless to say, did Barbara Walters, although she went to ABC. But now the evening-news shows are more and more beside the point, and morning is the part that matters. It’s your orientation point during the TV day; it’s your emotional touch point. It’s what the women watch. More important, it’s a defining product for network television that makes cable seem a little marginal.

Today and its competition have also become a vital part of the country’s news cycle. Newsmakers covet slots on morning shows to announce policy decisions or respond to troublesome situations. “All these morning shows, and the Today show specifically, we set the agenda for the day,” said Mr. Wald. “Nobody is waiting around anymore … to seize the day, both literally and figuratively–you got to go on the morning shows. It makes sense to start with all three of these shows, because then you can constantly update and tweak your message.”

But more than anything, what made Today into such a gorilla was its unabashed populism. Unlike the evening news–which still sees its function as being, well, the Evening News–Today aggressively caters to its audience. It’s still the news, but it’s the hometown news. To use a very old cliché that hasn’t been dragged from the blanket box in a long time, morning TV is the Global Village: the comfy café, the town hall, the high-school civics auditorium, the Fashion Barn Ladies Shop, the movie theater and the weather station all at once. Thus the triumph of Katie Couric, the cheerleader-as-student-council-president if ever there was one. And thus Matt, who might not get your daughter home by midnight but probably wouldn’t drink and drive. And thus the exact rightness of the broadcast throbbing crowd in Rockefeller Center, with the hats and the signs and the grins; the U.S.A. Thank goodness we don’t live in Austria, or we’d be looking at Tyrolean hats through that window.

When Today holds an on-air wedding, it lets the audience vote on everything from the invitations to the place settings to the honeymoon locale. When Matt Lauer jetted around the globe in those Waldo-esque “Where in the World Is Matt Lauer?” segments, the show asked viewers to scan the horizon and guess where the anchor was reporting from.

Today is also intensely commercial. All of the morning news business got a wake-up call after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, but before that big sobriety check, a typical Today show, like most of its competition, was essentially a super-caffeinated promotional vehicle–a speedy string of interviews, plugs and demos for upcoming products, films, books and music. A fall 2001 study by the Project on Excellence in Journalism concluded that prior to Sept. 11, a substantial proportion of morning news shows had become “a kind of sophisticated infomercial,” and that Today, GMA and the Early Show combined dedicated 34 percent of their time to “selling viewers something.” (During the home stretch of the 2000 Presidential race, this selling was apparently expanded to include an incessant schedule of Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates, wives and surrogates.)

Maybe that’s why there’s something ephemeral about all of today’s morning news shows–occasionally, Today or GMA or the Early Show can cook up compelling television, but most of their material feels disposable, whether it’s an interview with John Ashcroft, a cooking segment, a butt-exercise demonstration or a concert with Britney Spears. By design it’s intensely aural–morning TV is really a version of talk radio, since most of its audience is wandering around bedrooms, toothbrushes in hand, yelling at kids. It doesn’t matter if it’s groundbreaking or memorable; morning TV sells an image.

“The sum is greater than the total of its parts,” said Steve Friedman. “It’s the overall feeling [the audience] gets when they watch morning television–they may not even remember any of the spots.”

But it works. Today turned itself into a TV phenomenon, and did it in a time when audiences for broadcast news are being eroded by 24-hour cable. It helps that the morning itself is a better time to tackle the customer–really, who’s at home to watch the 6:30 evening news anymore?–but it’s seen the only winning game left in the broadcast news biz.

As a rivalry, it’s a circus. Competition between the shows for these newsmakers–and other guests–is wilder than ever. “It’s ugly,” said Mr. Friedman. “I’ve never seen it this bad. You have people calling up guests saying, ‘I just talked to the other show and they canceled.’ You have people sending cars pretending to be one show and being for another. You have people at a television studio fighting over who goes first and almost ending up in a fist fight. It’s as brutal as it’s ever been, which I sort of like.”

And there is an old-time show-business no-holds-barred quality to the competition. The shows routinely howl about getting ripped off by each other; Good Morning America executive producer Shelly Ross is still getting over having a Dionne Warwick concert in Bryant Park buzzed by a helicopter hired by Mr. Wald’s predecessor, Jeff Zucker. (“I don’t care if you do anything to us, but we just feel very protective of our guests,” Ms. Ross said.) Said Mr. Friedman: “When Zucker buzzed that concert at GMA, I laughed my ass off. I thought that was fun.”

And it’s only going to get more intense, now that the Today show looks a little vulnerable. There are a million theories as to why Today’s ratings lead began to soften after Sept. 11. One theory is that Today–the sunniest of the morning shows–wasn’t built for such a tragic and wide-ranging story, and that a sliver of the audience turned away to other sources, perhaps cable, perhaps GMA, with the news-nosed Ms. Sawyer and Mr. Gibson. “The advantages of Today were somewhat negated by 9/11,” said Mr. Friedman, who’s emerged as something of a Today critic in residence, though he freely admits he’d trade the Early Show’s numbers “for Today’s numbers tomorrow.”

There are theories that Today’s absurd popularity was simply bound to peak; that Ms. Couric’s girl-next-door popularity may have taken a hit when she flirted with quitting and then signed the $65 million deal; that Mr. Zucker’s departure to run NBC Entertainment left it rudderless; that Mr. Wald didn’t understand the beast.

Mr. Wald, the executive producer, scoffed at the suggestion that the top-rated Today is in trouble. “As somebody once famous said, ‘Lightning doesn’t hit the small trees,’” he said. And Mr. Wald dismissed theories that Today’s hard-news Achilles heel was exposed after Sept. 11. “We will not relinquish the hard-news title to anybody,” he said. “Just because they say ‘We are hard news’ doesn’t mean they are. Look at the work we are doing now, not what they say we were doing then.”

As for his own status, Mr. Wald allowed that a new boss was bound to take some early licks. “It’s always a challenge when someone new takes over a big operation,” he said. Because of inevitable newsroom gossip, “there’s always going to be that kind of low-level hum around any operation,” he said. Still, he insisted that he and his Today crew were undaunted. “They are used to being in first place by a lot, with everybody gunning for them,” he said. “It’s something the staff takes very well.”

Maybe so, but it doesn’t diminish the rising confidence at shops like Good Morning America, which is set to have its most successful quarter in numbers of viewers since the first quarter of 1996. Within GMA, there is a sense that, after some sputtering, this incarnation of the show–which they believe is a more news-oriented program, given Ms. Sawyer and Mr. Gibson’s respective pedigrees–came into its own during the extended 2000 Presidential election and began to reap better ratings after Sept. 11. Of Sept. 11, GMA executive producer Shelley Ross said: “I think it was a story that just played to our strengths … we felt that story in our bone marrow here.”

Of course, GMA isn’t MacNeil-Lehrer; Diane and Charlie can be as goofy as anyone–i.e., the stunt with five live births in one morning, or their introduction of It, the so-called transport revolution that looked like hand-rolled lawnmower. But GMA’s slow rise is impressive considering that ABC’s prime-time lineup, collapsed under the weight of dead sitcoms and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, is totally in the dumps. So the revitalized GMA has gotten new respect. “We used to ask for dimes,” said Mr. Gibson. “Now they give us dollars.”

Three years ago, Diane and Charles–did you ever think of that?–were brought aboard as interim saviors of a sunk ship, replacing jettisoned captains Lisa McRee and Kevin Newman, enlisted to keep the franchise afloat, but just visiting.

“I think that [interim label] did hold us back,” executive producer Shelley Ross said. “I thought, ‘Gee, if I knew I could say they are going to be here for at least three years …. ” I do think the relationships between the morning audience and the anchors is so personal, that I really feel that this slower growth in the morning really could have been attributed to ‘Why should I fall in love if someone is going to leave me in a couple of months?’”

Now, the belief within GMA is that Mr. Gibson and Ms. Sawyer are not transients, they won’t abandon you. “They are not going anywhere,” Ms. Ross said of Ms. Sawyer and Mr. Gibson. “They are just not.” Said David Westin: “Success always breeds longevity.”

Meanwhile, Ms. Sawyer, once considered too newsy, too glamorous for morning’s peppy atmospherics, has emerged as something of a counterintuitive surprise, kind of like what her husband Mr. Nichols did for Meryl Streep in Heartburn and Postcards from the Edge. “I felt she was the only person in the world who knew she was funny, who knew that she sat on the floor at 3 in the morning, rolled up her sleeves, wore coke-bottle glasses and worked on scripts by cutting them and pasting them together,” Ms. Ross said. “She is funny as hell, she is married to Mike Nichols, she’s a very interesting person.”

Ms. Sawyer concedes that she’s not exactly built for mornings, that she’s still going out two nights a week, maybe three, and if stepping out to see Robin Williams at Carnegie Hall means she might be a tad groggy the next day, she isn’t going to change. “I actually have a husband,” Ms. Sawyer said, laughing, after a recent show. “I actually have a nightlife.”

They’re even cracking a smile over at the Early Show, which got kicked like a junkyard dog a couple years back, when CBS spent millions launching Bryant 2.0 and barely moved the ratings needle. Also co-hosted by Jane Clayson, the Early Show outlasted Brill’s Content, which memorably plastered Mr. Gumbel to its cover with the tag: WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE? The Early Show is by no means a breakout hit, but buoyed by the Survivor wave, it got a jolt, and the buzzards aren’t circling anymore. “Survivor saved this show,” said Mr. Friedman. CBS’ commitment to the show, said Ms. Clayson, “is an indication that they see it going now–for the first time maybe ever at CBS–in the right direction.”

“It’s becoming like it always should be in television, where first is about as much ahead of second as second is ahead of third,” Mr. Friedman said, assessing the race. It may have not gotten there yet, but after television’s wake-up, competition has finally started to tighten. Today, GMA,and the Early Show will continue to scratch and claw. The Finck twins are going to get plenty of work.

Today’s Wake-Up