Burack: Archaic model has nearly destroyed morning TV

The archaic business model that has shaped morning TV for decades is now more consequential than the declining viewership numbers across dayside, evening, primetime, and late-night programming. In fact, the loss of morning TV viewership is the most pressing issue media executives face moving forward.

Morning programs essentially fund the news divisions at ABC, NBC, and CBS. An internal sales presentation prepared for NBCUniversal revealed in the spring that Today brought in $408 million in advertising revenue in 2019. By contrast, NBC’s Nightly News and Meet the Press recorded $146 million and $26 million, respectively. Good Morning AmericaToday’s primary rival, averages around $375 million in ad-dollars per year. GMA makes up most of ABC’s broadcast news revenue.

Over the past five years, Today and GMA have lost hundreds of thousands of viewers, struggling even to maintain their long-held market share dominance. But, as problematic as this is, it’s still going to get worse, possibly as soon as 2022.

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NBC and ABC have thus far managed to offset the losses they’ve sustained with Today and GMA by upping the charge for advertisers, a strategy experts view as effective but temporary. Dylan Byers reported recently that “major advertisers will eventually decide not to pay higher and higher costs to reach fewer and fewer viewers.”

Furthermore, the declining numbers for morning TV are worse than previous projections predicted. Last week, Today failed to average 3 million viewers for the first time since at least 1991, when television ratings first became accessible. In the past 30 years, Today has never had fewer viewers than it has, well, today.

TV executives are aware that their linear flagship programs have likely peaked and may even be in rapid decline, in large part because of cord-cutting and changes in viewer habits. And while social media and direct-to-consumer services have lately purloined many TV subscribers, news executives face unique challenges their entertainment and sports counterparts do not.

The decision-makers behind dramas, comedies, films, and sports plan to replace lost linear viewers and revenue with digital ads and OTT subscriptions. Broadcast executives view Peacock, Disney’s streaming bundle, and Paramount+ as lucrative alternatives for select programming.

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Other TV genres can make up for lost ad revenue on social media. Led by Jimmy Fallon and the Tonight Show, late-night TV is now formatted in segments that their respective networks clip to air on YouTube and Facebook. Late-night TV is thus quietly finding its way online.

Meanwhile, morning TV has yet to capitalize on any digital avenue, mainly because the content and conversations on morning TV do not work for on-demand viewing. Americans across the country enjoy watching or listening to Today and GMA while they drink coffee and prepare for their day. Aside from a small number of sit-down interviews a year, morning TV is not in the discussion come 11 a.m. ET. As a result, it’s doubtful that re-airs or spin-offs of Today would play well on Peacock.

Furthermore, morning shows have failed to innovate digitally, and as a result, competing digital alternatives have stolen their allure.

For all of social media’s negatives, Twitter is undoubtedly the best route for quick news updates in the morning. With Twitter, people can catch up on all of the overnight news within minutes, bypassing the purpose that GMA served for decades. And unlike morning TV programming, social media users are not at the mercy of producers who get to air whatever they find interesting. Instead, Twitter and Facebook users can easily curate their feeds so that they include only their preferred news sources. Fox News’ Jesse Watters wrote about the topic in his book, How I Save the World:

“[A]s a news source, Twitter is unmatched. No longer do you need to visit individual sites anymore. You can curate your own Twitter feed with pundits, reporters, and news sites you prefer. All conservative voices or all liberal voices, or a glorious mix.”

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That sounds better than suffering through repetitive commercials and a fake laugh from Savannah Guthrie just to catch 30 seconds of a story you missed the night before.

In addition, the younger demographic doesn’t have the patience or attention spans to view enough of a three-hour daily program to make a dent in the ratings. Those under the age of 45 want their news quick, condensed, and on-demand.

Thus, the rise of short, daily morning podcasts. In fewer than 30 minutes, the New York Times’ Daily podcast sends listeners more information than GMA and Today do in three hours. Best of all, it’s readily available at all times, trumping morning TV throughout the day. According to Podtrac’s non-exhaustive podcast data, the three most downloaded podcasts in June share a similar format: 1) The Daily 2) NPR News Now 3) Up First.

Unlike some cable news programs, GMA and Today are not successfully repurposed in podcast form to compete with traditional podcasts. As a result, the coveted 25-54 demographic has developed routines that do not include the two flagship morning TV programs: 

Tell me that chart isn’t frightening.

“[Today] is a total fiasco,” a network news veteran with knowledge of the program’s inner workings told Fox News. “The show has lost its role [as a] cultural touchstone.”

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Media executives have a list of problems waiting for them when they return from their Hampton summer vacations. But morning TV must take priority. Otherwise, they risk losing the ad revenue they need to sustain the Trump-hating programs they plan to air the rest of the day.

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