NBC’s decision to sack Ann Curry from the “Today Show” co-host position after just one year may have been a pre-tell of things, not so good, to come for the morning news program that had dominated the early morning time slot since its inception in 1952. Dave Garroway, the program’s original host, was credited with winning viewers with his easy style and his success established forever the importance of personality in achieving TV ratings success for the show that is celebrating its 62nd anniversary on NBC. With the early departure of Ann Curry in 2012, and most recently David Gregory, many are questioning whether the presence of any one or team of personalities can be enough to move the show into a sustained hold on the number one slot against an expanding array of formidable media competition.
With new competition from non-television, Internet and social media outlets, “Today Show” producers appear to be stumbling around the news media universe looking and hoping to find a formula that will return them to the ratings glory days of old. The introduction of the “Orange Room” last year was the first effort of its kind to integrate social media into a live morning broadcast and to connect and interact directly with viewers in real-time. It was also a clear effort to stay relevant in a quickly changing media environment. While the experiment found immediate success, it was soon tempered when ratings rival ABC introduced their “Social Square” a few months later.
With a determined focus on ratings, network executives pulled out all the stops in repackaging the “Today Show’s” persona, building a bright orange set, adding new aesthetic accessories, introducing creative camera perspectives and remaking the images of the show’s hosts. A series of special events, featuring the latest popular, big-name entertainment produced a flurry of new viewers, but proved to have a relatively brief impact on ratings gain. The focus on repackaging and image polishing led Don Nash, the “Today Show’s” executive producer, to comment, “The viewers aren’t just going to come overnight. It’s going to take them a while to recognize that it’s time to come back, we have built it, and now we just need the viewers to come. And they will.”
Nash’s optimistic reference, first popularized by the 1989 film “Field of Dreams,” supposes that building a new structural venue will in itself result in viewers flocking to the new shiny stadium, but fails to realize that attendees will remain and come back only if the content of the entertainment within the shiny new stadium meets their expectations and fulfills their need to be entertained. The strategy also assumes that the networks’ numbers focused executives will give Nash’s renewed strategy the time necessary to attract his anticipated field of viewers, an assumption not likely in an industry dominated by a sense of ratings immediacy.
If “Today” is going to overcome what NBC News president Deborah Turness called, “a long, slow decline,” it is going to take a strategy that addresses more than a new box and the hanging of some technological bangles and bows. The pathway back to the top will require a strategy focused first and foremost on identifying and fulfilling the viewer’s desire for relevant content and quality entertainment.