So, the other morning I watched a full two-hours, 7am-9am, of Today and GMA. One live. One on dvr. Yes, four hours of my life I'll never get back. I did this because of all the huh-bub over Today's debacle-filled 2012 and subsequent ratings slide which coincided with GMA's rise to morning #1 after a decades long stint being second-best. Then I decided to watch additional shows during the week.
In full disclosure, I have a unique connection to both shows that goes back to the mid-90s. As a host/correspondent with Access Hollywood from 1999-2011, I often found myself on the Today set or on location with the show as part of our coverage. I did too many things with Today to remember all of them, but most memorable were meeting Matt Lauer at various secret places around the world during his very successful "Where In The World Is Matt Lauer" gig. I had fewer dealings with GMA, but had the occasion to chat with Dianne Sawyer, Charlie Gibson and Robin Roberts from time to time.
I don't often watch the network morning shows anymore because I can get nearly everything they end up producing ahead of time online. Often I'll read something the night before and then I'll see it on a morning show without much advancement in story lineage or an out-of-the-box creative take on the story. By the way, I'm pretty sure most viewers do the same thing. Sure, they may not have more than 20-years in the business like me, but they clearly surf and scroll thru stories on the web that interest them.
There may be the occasional network big GET, the interview everyone wants, that will draw eyeballs to the bright light of the moment. But what keeps those eyeballs there when the light dims to average ambient? Therein lies the dilemma for the morning shows. If they are all doing basically the same stories, both hard news and touchy feely, what is left to set them apart? How do they become that flashing, attention getting light bulb in a sea of constant luminescence? Or, better yet, become the light-show pulsating with the killer beat behind that door in the Nielson house? A fab, skilled DJ is far better than a guy inserting a cd and pushing play. The remix is king.
So, what makes for a fabulous "Morning Show DJ", so to speak?
Well, just look at GMA and it's Tiesto/David Guetta/Markus Schultz, if you will. His name is Ben Sherwood. He set up residence at ABC in 2004 as the Executive Producer of GMA. He's now the President of ABC News. Sherwood was not your normal EP nor is he your normal news president. Sure, some of his credentials are what you would expect --producer on network shows including senior producer of NBC's Nightly News with Tom Brokaw. He even did a stint with Diane Sawyer back in the Sam Donaldson days of ABC's PrimeTime Live! I can still hear Donaldson saying, "Live!", as only he could.
But, somewhere along the way, Sherwood wrote a number of best-selling books, including one that was turned into a movie, Charlie St. Cloud, starring Zac Efron. That isn't Sherwood's only Hollywood connection. His wife co-chairs Imagine Films, part of Imagine Entertainment, founded by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. Do you see where I'm going with this?
Here's a guy who, along with then ABC News President David Westin, re-mixed GMA in a way the folks at Today could only dream of. In 2009, Diane Sawyer left to anchor World News. That's a big loss for GMA. The transition to the World News chair and filling her seat at GMA went incredibly well. Back in 2005, 12-months into his first remix set, Sherwood had GMA nearly beating Today. Now, as news president, Sherwood is the first ABC top news chief in 16-years to have GMA #1 in the morning. On the flip-side of that stat is the fact that Today was #1 for an amazing 16-years. It started back in 1996 with the Summer Olympics in Atlanta broadcast by...NBC.
So, now GMA is #1 and Today is reeling as ratings continue to sink. In watching both shows, you see how GMA is what Today once was --- a great mix of talent allowed to do what they do best in a conducive environment. Sherwood and company re-mixed the show and talent into what can be described as the morning show version of Swedish House Mafia - the perfect antidote. Talented people allowed to collaborate, mix-it up and create moments in every corner of the social zeitgeist.
One of the best pieces of advice a tv executive ever gave me was to "push the envelope every day. We brought you here because you can do live tv like very few people. So have fun, create moments and make great television. If you ever need to be reigned in, we'll let you know." I had a ball and had an amazing team. We were number one. Don't underestimate the importance of the executives and producers establishing a creative sandbox for talent. GMA's sandbox looks like a high-tech, innovative party hip to every aspect of our world today. Today, not so much.
Let's also not forget that a show can't be #1 forever. Things come in cycles. And this isn't to say there are not incredibly talented people at Today. But, cycles indicate what worked previously will not work as well in the new cycle. And this cycle is filled with exciting challenges like never before. How do networks and shows reach viewers who are using second screen options more and more? Mobile is the future. Often NY and LA based companies, and networks for that matter, feel they know exactly what middle America wants. It's often not the case.
Speaking of mobile and being behind the curve, I just returned from a TED Conference. The innovative and incredible speakers and entrepreneurs proved that point in an eye-opening way. If I ran a network, I would make sure my execs went to TED. I do have to give props to ABC and GMA for being innovative in trying new ways to reach their audience. Even the ABC app is good and works well on my mobile.
After watching GMA and Today, I then watched the season premier episode of The Voice and realized something remarkable. GMA is The Voice. Today is American Idol. Idol was once a dominant, creative show that was right in the sweet spot of the social zeitgeist with a great mix of talent/judges and producing. It is now pulling some of it's lowest ratings ever. Meanwhile, The Voice with it's fantastic mix of talent/judges is fresher, unpredictable and much more enjoyable to watch. It's a fun sandbox where the talent can do what they do best--be themselves and push the envelope. Viewers feel as if they have pulled up a chair and are hanging with the judges. They're sitting there while Adam, Shakira, Usher and Blake shoot the shit just as they would at a bar. It is incredibly inclusive.
Come to think of it, that was the part of the appeal of Today with Matt and Katie Couric. You always felt that you could pull up a chair in the morning and hang with them. It was a fun, unpredictable sandbox for all and wonderfully inclusive.
Everything is a cycle and this is GMA's time. Wait, did Swedish House Mafia just break up???