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Camera operators, co-anchors and onlookers surround Savannah Guthrie whenever she appears on a broadcast of NBC’s “Today.” For a new streaming offering, however, sometimes she must fly solo.
Guthrie is hunkered down in her dressing room two flights of stairs above Studio 1A, the longtime home of the venerable morning show, fidgeting with a ring light that she can’t get to stay in a fixed position due to a faulty clamp. Rainy weather is keeping her from doing what was supposed to be a quick outdoor interview with the country band Lady A for the latest edition of “Six-Minute Marathon,” a recurring feature where she throws questions rapid-fire at any number of celebrity guests: “If you were arrested, with no explanation, what would your family think you had done?” “If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have one food, what would it be?” “What movie or TV reboot would you like to see happen?”
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In the big studio, Guthrie would enjoy quick access to helpful staff. Here, in a private space decorated with pictures of her family and a pink neon heart-shaped light, she is on her own. “It’s like I do what I need to do,” says Guthrie after the streaming segment comes to an end, noting that “I don’t have to prep for it. All I have to do is be present and be listening.”
Guthrie’s “Marathon” short likely won’t snare the hundreds of thousands of viewers who regularly watch “Today,” but segments like it are starting to carry as much significance to NBC and its corporate parent, Comcast, as the two hours of morning TV she helps lead each weekday. NBC already produces more hours of “Today” every week than there are in the primetime schedule of its broadcast rival, Fox. But in recent months, NBC News has been expanding morning TV’s longest-running national program into something quite different. “Today” producers estimate on a weekly basis they are making 200 on-air segments, 35 streaming shows, 200 digital videos, 23 podcast episodes and 10 TikToks. The result? Executives believe “Today,” outfitted with an “All Day” video-streaming service, can compete with other big lifestyle media outlets.
“I think there was a time when we felt like, ‘Oh, this digital thing? This passing fad?’” says Guthrie. “Now I think we fully recognize this is where the future is. This is where the action is.”
Mind you, there’s still lots of juice to squeeze in the a.m. No one at NBC intends to cut into the substantial flow of advertising revenue to O.G. “Today,” which airs for four hours each weekday and a few more on weekends. The show’s first two hours, anchored by Guthrie and Hoda Kotb, generated $357.6 million alone in 2020, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending. Add in the 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. weekday hours plus “Today” broadcasts on Saturday and Sunday morning, and the TV franchise brings NBC nearly half a billion dollars in advertising cash each year. The economics of NBC News hinge on that money continuing to fall into the network’s coffers.
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And yet, it’s no secret that broadcast TV’s morning programs are losing traditional viewers — the ones who watch the shows live — or that news divisions are stepping up efforts to target streaming audiences that tune in to programming on demand. An average of 949,000 people between 25 and 54 (the demographic favored by advertisers in news programming) watched “Today” during the week of Oct. 25, which included its annual Halloween show, when anchors dress up in costumes. Viewership for a similar week a year ago, however, stood at nearly 1.04 million, according to Nielsen figures, representing a loss of around 8%.
In 1952, legendary TV executive Sylvester “Pat” Weaver launched “Today” to lure AM radio listeners with video news footage that could be assembled overnight. Led by anchor Dave Garroway and the chimpanzee mascot J. Fred Muggs, the morning program originally aired for two hours, eventually expanding to four. Decades later, NBC executives think “Today” can jockey for viewers well after the sun is up, part of a bid aimed at “future-proofing” a franchise the company can’t afford to lose.
They believe there is a large swath of young consumers who do not watch “Today” on TV, or in the morning, but would be interested in the regular newsmaker exchanges with Guthrie and Kotb; the trending topics covered by Carson Daly; Jenna Bush Hager’s book club; expanded versions of Willie Geist’s Sunday interviews; Al Roker’s dabbling in cooking and concerns about climate; Jill Martin’s “Steals & Deals”; and reams of information on parenting, wellness and consumer finance. And the best of the digital stuff can feed segments on the morning show too.
“We just want to make sure we are meeting that habit,” says Libby Leist, the NBC News senior vice president who has been spearheading the “Today” journey from TV to all-screen. Citing Comscore figures, NBC says “Today” content reaches 70 million viewers per month, the majority of that audience under the age of 50. “We think the ‘Today’ brand is a trusted source for people, and I see it as being universal in your day, versus just that morning show,” says Leist.
Consequently, “Today” mainstays are adding to plates that are already quite full. The streaming “all-day” channel mixes highlights, archival segments, original video programming and extended cuts of interviews that don’t fit in the regimented formats of broadcast TV. NBC distributes it via its streaming hub, Peacock, as well as the stand- alone NBC News Now service, but it’s also available on YouTube, Fox’s Tubi, ViacomCBS’ Pluto and certain connected TV services like Roku and Apple TV. Kotb and Guthrie host a half-hour highlights show each weekday that presents standout segments from the program’s four morning hours. You might call it the “SportsCenter” of “Today.”
Roker recently kicked off a six-episode podcast in which he cooks up holiday feasts with celebrity chefs. He couldn’t get half an hour to cook a turkey on TV, says Roker, but “you can on the podcast — and interview people and talk to chefs they like and get insights.” The new content gets promotional shout-outs on traditional “Today.”
Kotb, in addition to doing three hours of “Today” TV each morning, hosts a “Today”-related show on SiriusXM and recently started “Making Space,” a podcast where she interviews inspirational figures.
The entire four-hour “Today” weekday TV run also has been made available in podcast form so people can listen to the show when they wish.
There’s a growing sense in the media business that people who don’t want to experiment with new concepts may not have old ones to hang on to for very long. “Today” isn’t in danger of being canceled — it’s central to the economics of the network — but every TV executive realizes in 2021 that the younger audiences who fuel ad revenue and, ultimately, profit have become increasingly untethered from the day-and-date viewing sessions upon which the business has been based.
“The idea of a brand or a show or a program being limited to just one form anymore seems almost anachronistic in today’s multi-media-fluid world,” says Tim Hanlon, CEO of Vertere Group, a consultancy that works with companies in the media and advertising sectors. “If you think about things like FAST channels and podcasting and digital radio and satellite radio and the amount of fast morphing in media, you have to be as visceral and available and legitimate in all of those places. That’s how the audience for the old format, the quaint TV show, now lives.”
Others outside traditional TV are working to court those viewers. Spotify, for example, has begun to expand its rollout of video podcasts from top creators, adding to its “vodcast” lineup that includes Joe Rogan. The Recount, a news and politics site founded by political analyst John Heilemann and entrepreneur John Battelle, recently named Ryan Kadro, a veteran of “CBS This Morning,” as its chief content officer in a bid to ramp up production of video counterparts for its podcasts. Executives at NBC see “Today” vying more directly with nontraditional competitors like Condé Nast, Insider, Group Nine Media and MSN. “I would suggest that Instagram and Snap and just about every other social platform are doing the same thing — moving straight from text- and graphics-sharing and elevating themselves into push-button video. I think that’s really the new media model,” says Hanlon. NBC News President Noah Oppenheim sees a world in which “Today” must measure up against companies never considered rivals in the past. “The reality is in the TV business that we are all competing for people’s attention in a way that wasn’t the case a decade ago,” he says.
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Some “Today” a.m. rivals are trying similar stuff and may have more to unveil in days ahead. CBS News has for some time offered two different podcasts related to “CBS Mornings” and makes segments from the show available on its CBSN streaming outlet. ABC’s “Good Morning America” has also tested anchors including Robin Roberts and Deborah Roberts in streaming video and has a book club audience seeded via Instagram. And it has a robust presence on TikTok. “My focus is very much on that 7 to 9 a.m. experience, but my second focus is firmly on that 9 a.m. to 7 a.m. experience, and we are still figuring out what that looks like, what that part of the audience wants as they interact with the brand,” says Simone Swink, who was named executive producer of “GMA” in August. “I think 2022 is going to be a really good year for ‘GMA’ on all platforms.”
Moving into new frontiers creates challenges for a company that continues to inhabit familiar territories. To make things easier for the “Today” anchors, NBC News maximizes time during the morning run to curate material for some of the streaming work. Guthrie and Kotb knock out quick lines for the highlights show, “Today in 30,” when NBC’s live feed cuts to commercials for Clorox and Toyota. In the short lull between the end of the third hour of “Today” and the start of the fourth led by Kotb and Hager, the duo and some cohorts do a few quick steps for TikTok as producers warn they have only a few seconds before they will be on a live screen.
“There’s not really one free minute from the time we get the rundown to the minute we go off the air,” notes Kotb, who still finds moments to FaceTime her children during off-air pauses. But she acknowledges the chance to test new formats “kind of jacks you up a bit,” and says she tries to keep the projects aligned with her own interests, such as probing questions of faith and happiness. She has found that the new system prods her to be “super-efficient.”
Roker, who has been experimenting for years with new media forms via NBC and his own production company, sees all the work as part of the same job. “Five years, 10 years down the road, I think people will still want to know what they want to know when they get up, but will it be on a fixed screen or on a heads-up display in your car?” Like many executives at NBC News, Guthrie believes the show can include a wide range of subjects, many of which have little to do with what time of day they are discussed. “‘Today’ encompasses everything. I think the sky is the limit,” she says. Asked if there’s anything the show should not stream, she quickly replies: “Porn.”
The “Today” content expansion is also creating opportunities for its hosts. Hager has led a book club on the show’s fourth hour for more than three years but credits the combination of the TV program and digital media with building a large community of readers. Her interviews with authors can end up not only on her Instagram feed but also as a special on the “Today All Day” streaming channel. “The viewers — some watch the show, and some are just fans online,” Hager says, hinting that the effort could expand soon. “This feels like it’s sort of in phase 2 of what we hoped this book club can be, and there are so many more possibilities.”
Back in her dressing room, Guthrie has wrapped her digital program but has a ways to go before her day is done. There is a fitting for the Halloween costume she will be wearing on TV in a few days and a taping with Roker for a digital offering that gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at how the iconic TV show gets made. “Today” may start in the morning, but the business it’s targeting needs to be fought for all day long.
The Business of Entertainment