Click photo to enlarge
The Christ the Redeemer statue stands in front of the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Summer Games start Aug. 5.

NEW YORK >> The last time the "Today" show went to the summer Olympics, the break provided salve for its wounds. This year's Rio trip offers an opportunity.

The NBC morning show has found its footing after years in the wilderness, cutting into the advantage of ratings leader "Good Morning America" on ABC. Since viewers flock to the morning show of the Olympics rights holder, "Today" hopes to reintroduce itself to people who may have drifted away.

"The show has never been at a better place, so we're excited for those additional eyeballs," said Noah Oppenheim, NBC News senior vice president in charge of the "Today" show .

"Today" will import its cast to Brazil, and introduce new member Billy Bush, who is set to anchor the 9 a.m. hour after Natalie Morales' departure. The exception is Savannah Guthrie, co-anchor with Matt Lauer of the first two hours, who is pregnant and decided to remain in New York because of concerns over the Zika virus. With Guthrie's political expertise, that could prove fortuitous in an election year.

At the time of the London Olympics in 2012, "Today" had tumbled from first place in the ratings after its disastrous ouster of Ann Curry. It has remained No. 2 in viewership ever since.


Advertisement

Oppenheim has sought to reorient the show toward news, adding some subtle changes that increase the sense of urgency. Lauer and Guthrie now anchor the show's first half hour alone and give the news headlines themselves, rather than passing them off to a separate newscaster. The anchors usually do big interviews together now, instead of separately.

"The 'Today' show at its best had always been the morning show that set the nation's agenda," said Oppenheim, who took over at the beginning of last year. "It's a news show at its heart, and what I wanted to do was make sure we lived up to that legacy."

Seeking interviews that advance news stories is an important goal, too. Lauer was let on the plane when Donald Trump arrived in Cleveland for last month's GOP convention, for example, and his sound bite of Melania Trump talking about writing her speech became valuable as the week went on.

Billie Gold, research chief at the advertising firm Amplifi US, said she was a regular viewer of "Today" until she saw it was trying too hard to emulate the lighter touch of "Good Morning America."

"At one point, I was turning it off," she said. "I wanted the news and I felt like I wasn't getting the news. It was too much fluff. When Oppenheim came in, he made it more of a blend and they put the news back in."

While the veteran Lauer seems more engaged, research shows that he hasn't recovered the popularity he enjoyed before many viewers seemed to blame the ugliness of the Curry incident on him. Lauer's "Q" score was an impressive 23 in 2010 — meaning 23 percent of people in a survey who knew Lauer considered him one of their favorites. By winter 2013, his score had tumbled to nine. Last winter, it was 11, according to Marketing Evaluations Inc., which makes the calculations.

"The whole debacle with Matt Lauer, I think it's in the past now," Gold said.

The "Today" show has cut the gap with "GMA" to an average of 177,000 viewers this year after being down by more than a half million in 2015, the Nielsen company said. Both shows are seen by between 4 and 5 million viewers each morning. This year, NBC has taken over the lead among viewers aged 25-to-54, a key demographic since advertising sales are based on that number.

NBC isn't gaining viewers; in fact, its viewership is off 83,000 from 2015. But "Good Morning America" has been losing viewers at a much more rapid pace, Nielsen said.

The real morning mover is "CBS This Morning," which has gained more than 250,000 viewers since last year but still isn't seriously challenging the two leaders in ratings.

History indicates that "Today" will dominate the ratings during the Olympics. The key will be keeping some of those new viewers when everyone gets home. "GMA" has an edge in older viewers, who tend to be more resistant to changing their habit, Gold said.

"It just makes it more incumbent upon us to make sure the product we put on in the morning is so compelling that people have to turn us on," Oppenheim said.