When NBC's (NASDAQ:CMCSA)Today Show led the morning ratings for 16 years, one of the key factors in maintaining that dominance was the stability of the cast. Aside from the awkward transition between Jane Pauley and Deborah Norville -- which almost caused the show to dip behind ABC's (NYSE:DIS) Good Morning America -- Today managed to subtly switch out cast members without disrupting the chemistry of the program.
Today finally lost its hold on the top spot when the show named Ann Curry as Matt Lauer's co-host only to force her out after less than a year. Curry was not particularly good at being a morning show co-anchor and was not well-liked by the public, but the perception that she was wronged made her a sympathetic figure. More importantly it made Lauer a villain and showed that "America's First Family" was not a family at all but people who may not actually like each other very much.
The public's trust was breached and a door was opened for the competition.
The same thing is happening now at Good Morning America and Today might be moving into position to take the top spot back.
What happened at Good Morning America?
While Today was involved in the Curry soap opera, GMA was building a cast that genuinely seemed to like each other. George Stephanopoulos and Robin Roberts may have been the lead anchors, but news anchor Josh Elliot, weatherman Sam Champion, and lifestyle anchor Lara Spencer were key players. Of that supporting cast only Spencer remains. Champion departed -- under somewhat mysterious circumstances -- for a morning show on the Weather Channel (which is like giving up a job at The New York Times to write for Highlights). Elliot left abruptly with an announced destination of NBC Sports, but his ultimate landing spot may be Today.
Champion is now part of the NBC family as Comcast owns The Weather Channel, as is Elliot who will ostensibly be working for the sports division. Deadline reports that Elliot's previous ABC deal prevents him from appearing on Today for six months. That's not a long time in TV years and that makes him available for the gig in November when Today co-host Savvanah Guthrie returns from maternity leave.
"NBC needs someone else besides Willie Geist ready to take over for Matt Lauer when his contract runs out," Roger Friedman at ShowBiz411 wrote. "With the ratings in such bad shape, it's unlikely that Lauer will continue with Today past 2014. Right now, all they have is Geist, and he's not ready."
Elliot likely priced himself out of a job at GMA where he had reportedly been asking for a raise from around $1 million per year to $10 million, Deadline reported.
How big are mornings for the networks?
In 2011 when Today was still the leader the program collected $485 million in ad revenue, The Wall Street Journal reported . GMA brought in $299 million that year. Jon Swallen, senior vice president of research at Kantar, told The Journal the difference in ad dollars reflects higher prices for a spot on Today.
In 2012 Kantar estimated that the ABC show had climbed a bit in ad dollars to $318 million while NBC's show grew to $515 million partially because it was able to offer advertisers package deals that include the 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. hours of the show.
Though 2013 numbers have not been reported yet, ABC ad buyers did use their show's new status as the ratings leader to win more ad dollars during the up-fronts (the time before a TV season when ad packages are sold), The Hollywood Reporter said.
NBC has managed to steady its ship after the Curry debacle and the thing that brought GMA to the top -- the fact that its cast appeared to like each other -- now seems to not be true any more with Champion and Elliot both jumping ship. If Today can elegantly swap Elliot for Lauer it could conceivably reclaim the throne.
Will Josh Elliot take Matt Lauer's spot?
With Lauer's deal expiring in 2015 it's unlikely he will be forced out but also unlikely he will want to continue or that NBC will want to pay him anything close to the $25 million he reportedly makes in his current deal.
"We hope that he wants to last out at least this contract on the Today show," NBC News Group chairman Patricia Fili-Krushel told The Hollywood Reporter, adding that she'd "keep Matt Lauer as long as he wants to stay."
That sounds nice but Lauer damaged his reputation and his standing with viewers during the Curry incident and while the network may not force him out the two sides are likely to negotiate a graceful departure (think Meredith Viera's celebratory exit). The host may stay with NBC in another capacity or he may end up working elsewhere, but it's unlikely Lauer spends much, if any, of 2015 at Today.
Elliot was not hired for some vague job at NBC Sports. Given than Deadline reported ABC had a deal worth $4 million to $5 million on the table for the host, you can assume NBC is paying him north of $5 million per year, and unless your name is Bob Costas you're not getting paid that much to work for NBC Sports.
Expect Elliot to be slowly introduced to the NBC family and for him to be at least appearing on -- if not hosting -- Today as soon as he is legally able. That plus the seeming dysfunction at GMA may once again put the Today show back on top.
Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.