These days, the effervescent smiles on the “Today” show, America’s most popular morning television companion, are concealing anxiety.
A few remote control clicks away on “Good Morning America,” the smiles may look the same, but they hint at something very different: hope.
And on both sides? Sleepless nights. That’s because, after more than 16 years of playing the most consistent loser since Sisyphus, “GMA” is encroaching on “Today.” Though they preach patience, executives at ABC News — where every employee knows that the ascension of “GMA” is the top priority of the news division president, Ben Sherwood — believe they have the momentum to win, which would reorder the morning TV standings for the first time since the 1990s.
The stakes are high because “Today,” as the No. 1 show, has dominated advertising sales on morning television — an advantage that has consistently confirmed the show’s status as the greatest profit center in network television, earning $250 million to $300 million a year for NBC, a unit of Comcast , analysts say. Its 16-year streak is unmatched in network television.
For many years, the gap between the two shows was a million viewers or more, but “GMA” has been gradually closing the gap with “Today” for nearly a year. Two weeks ago, an average of 119,000 viewers separated the two shows, the narrowest margin this season.
ABC has been here before — most recently in 2005, when it came within 45,000 viewers of “Today” for a week, then lost its momentum. And executives at NBC News say that ABC will come up short again. In an interview last week, Steve Capus, the president of NBC News, would not even entertain what it might mean for “Today” should the streak be broken in the coming weeks.
“That’s a hypothetical that we are not going to have to deal with,” Mr. Capus said. “It’s not going to happen.” He acknowledged that the competition had been tougher lately, but said, “We expect good competition.”
“GMA” says the same. When the “Today” co-host Matt Lauer — unquestionably the most important on-the-air presence in morning television — said last Friday that he had renewed his contract, a “GMA” staff member was sent over to the “Today” show studio with a gift: a bucket of golf balls. The “GMA” co-host George Stephanopoulos congratulated Mr. Lauer and remarked during the show, “Take all the time off to perfect your golf game.”
Even with Mr. Lauer in his seat at “Today,” “GMA” views his show as especially vulnerable right now.
The primary goal at ABC News is to “become the No. 1 morning television program, and we will not stop until we do,” said Tom Cibrowski, the senior executive producer of “GMA.”
That goal was set about 16 months ago when Mr. Sherwood was named president of the news division. Mr. Sherwood was the producer of “GMA” when the show came within 45,000 viewers in 2005. He added Josh Elliott and Lara Spencer to the “GMA” cast last spring and encouraged producers to add more lighthearted segments. While ABC calls the segments “relevant,” NBC staff members deride them as “tabloid.”
Nearly all observers of the battle say that “GMA” has been helped by the lighter tone and by some cross-promotions with the prime-time reality show “Dancing With the Stars.” “Today,” they say, has been hurt by NBC’s sagging prime-time schedule.
Mr. Sherwood of ABC reminds “GMA” staff from time to time, “Play our game.”
That may have been hard for either show last week. ABC lined up the former “Today” show co-host Katie Couric to fill in for Robin Roberts, who usually sits next to Mr. Stephanopoulos. NBC retaliated with stunt bookings: it promoted a visit by a “Today” show “legend” (the former host Meredith Vieira); the presence of Sarah Palin as a co-host for a day; and a visit from Ryan Seacrest, who flew to New York just for the appearance, then hurried back to Los Angeles.
ABC booked its own promotable guests, like Eva Longoria and Regis Philbin. It also tried to book Oprah Winfrey after she appeared on the CBS morning show on Monday, but Ms. Winfrey declined.
“Today” emerged victorious. While Ms. Roberts was away, the gap widened considerably, to about 400,000 total viewers through Thursday.
Senior ABC staff members characterized NBC’s stunt bookings as desperate. But those at NBC suggested that ABC’s use of Ms. Couric, who left “Today” in 2006, and the overall win-at-all-costs approach showed desperation.
Mr. Cibrowski disputed that and said Ms. Couric could fill in again in the future, perhaps when Mr. Stephanopoulos takes a vacation.
The bookings are taken seriously because the morning shows are sources of pride as well as profit. A former morning TV executive, who insisted on anonymity because of continued business dealings with both networks, said, “Psychologically it could be devastating for ‘Today.’ Once they lose a week they know it will never be the same again.”
Even if they lose a week this spring, “Today” will almost certainly regain a comfortable margin this summer when NBC covers the Summer Olympics in London. ABC staff members glumly refer to that as a “reset button.”
In explaining the recent “GMA” ratings gains, James Goldston, who held Mr. Cibrowski’s job until February, when his job at ABC News was expanded, credited the chemistry of the show’s ensemble. “It really does feel like lightning in a bottle,” he said, “and we try to capture it the best we can.”
The converse might be true at “Today,” where questions about the personal chemistry between Mr. Lauer and his co-host, Ann Curry, have become a drumbeat among close observers of the show, perhaps an inevitable development when any successful news program begins to flag.
In the last few months, the show’s producers have purposefully given greater prominence to Savannah Guthrie, who was named a co-host of the 9 a.m. hour last year, giving rise to speculation that she was being groomed to take over for Ms. Curry. But NBC says that speculation is uninformed (not to mention detrimental to the show).
Mr. Capus said that “we feel confident we have the best team going.” When asked if further changes in the show’s cast were in the offing, he said, “There have been no conversations about that.”
“This is my family,” Mr. Lauer said Friday morning after Ms. Curry told viewers about the new contract.
She playfully added, “We’re stuck with you for a long time, so let’s have some fun."
Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of CNBC and CNBC.com.