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Andy Sullivan: Against the Grain

In the ‘90’s, Americans wake up to a war being fought for their hearts and minds.  Television networks battled over morning show treasure. Heroes will rise and others will fall.  The on-screen fun and games makes a competitive world for pirates and predators.

For decades, American start with two things: coffee and morning tv news.  By the late ‘80’s, these shows will generate the largest audiences and generate the most profits than any other shows on network television.  Behind the talk is a serious, cutthroat competition.  At stake is a billion dollars in advertising revenue.  Morning shows are the cash cows of networks, with a sizeable premium being paid for #1.  How important are these shows to their respective networks? Good Morning America and the Today Show bring in about $500 million a year.

Up until the mid ‘80’s, GMA and The Today Show maintained a peaceful coexistence.  Each occupied its own territory in the cultural landscape.  The Today Show was the first out of the gate.  The show’s first broadcast aired on January 14, 1952 as the brainchild of television executive Sylvester Weaver, who was at the time vice president of NBC.  Hosted by Dave Garroway, who already had a following thanks to his previous variety show in Chicago, Garroway at Large.  His sidekick was chimpanzee (no joke) J. Fred Mugs.  The Today Show spends 25 years as America’s go-to for morning information.  From the ‘50’s up into the ‘70’s, The Today Show mirrors back changes through American society, with Barbara Walters evolving from a Today girl reporting from the Playboy Club to the first woman to co-host a morning show.  Walters helps boost the Today Show’s appeal to those making up the majority of morning show viewers.

Today’s status as the sole morning news source ends in November 3, 1975 when Good Morning America premiered on ABC.  Viewers were struck by how different the show looked.  It was different in that the set looked like a living room or dining room.  Senior GMA producer in the mid-’90’s Albert Lewitinn: “It’s all about mom and pop and their fun little shop downtown.  That was the idea” (of GMA).  Also different was this: where Today is produced by NBC News, GMA is part of ABC’s entertainment division.  GMA was produced by the same folks producing ABC hits The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. By the mid-‘80’s, GMA and the Today Show share more similarities than differences.

On November 30, 1987, CBS would join the morning wars with the premiere of CBS This Morning with hosts Harry Smith, former Good Morning America news anchor Kathleen Sullivan, and Mark McEwen, a holdover from the show’s infotainment-intensive predecessor The Morning Program as weathercaster and announcer.  CBS approached morning news quite differently than ABC or NBC.  While ABC and NBC were battling, CBS was like “hey, we’re here, too”.  While CBS would remain in 3rd place forever, what set Today and GMA apart were the hosts.  In 1987, after a decade of finishing behind Today, GMA trades in host David Hartman for young White House correspondent Charlie Gibson.  Gibson would work beside veteran co-host Joan Lunden to go against Today’s power couple of Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley.

Co-anchors Charlie Gibson and Joan Lunden, along with weatherman Spencer Christian, were beginning to leave the Today Show in the dust.  NBC asked veteran Today anchor Bryant Gumbel what was wrong with the show.  Gumbel let loose.  He says veteran newsman Willard Scott was dumbing the show down and ruining it.  He also said the show movie critic Gene Shalit is causing problems.  Suddenly, the private disfunction at the Today Show goes public when someone leaks this private Gumbel memo to the press.  

NBC brings in Deborah Norville and Jane Pauley soon departs. Today Show ratings plummet.  The advent of cable news in the ‘90’s was an absolute tectonic shift in how morning shows got produced.  They saw morning show tv as entertainment and adapted as such.  Good Morning America became a surreal oasis for positive vibes.  Yes, ‘90’s GMA was positive. Sounds unbelievable, doesn’t it? Life was sweet at GMA as Today Show ratings continued to fall.  In February 1991, a pregnant Deborah Norville takes a hiatus from the show.  Her fill-in is a plucky reporter who got her start in cable news and will go onto become one of the most celebrated hosts in morning tv history.  Katie Couric was the fill-in and she started getting higher ratings for the show.  Norville’s 5-month maternity leave became permanent.  

By the ‘90’s, morning television was an American staple.  For anyone working in morning tv, the early hours are the price you have to pay for staying on top.  Gary Stein, producer of GMA in the ‘90’s, never thought morning tv was for him.  When his 4 am alarm went off, “I’d leave my briefcase and clothes in the bathroom, try not to wake my wife up and then go downstairs and get out”.  

NBC still had some work to do before catching up to ABC, who they once trounced.  Dick Ebersol stepped down as overseer of the Today Show.  His replacement was an ambitious young producer named Jeff Zucker.  Jeff was able to address a younger audience.  He had a willing accomplice to get scoops in Couric.  While at the White House interviewing Barbara Bush, Couric is prompted by Zucker to switch focus to the president.  Couric challenges Bush on the role he played in America’s unlawful sale of weapons to Iran.  He was caught in a lie.  Couric’s interview contributed to him eventually losing the presidency.

Zucker’s plan to win the morning wars was beating his competition to the biggest stories of the day.  His news-first approach started eating into GMA’s ratings lead.  Zucker leans on NBC brass to let him turn Today into a spectacle.  June 20, 1994 was day one of Studio 1A for the Today Show.  Their on the street studio is a big deal.  Fans can see the hosts through the glass of the building.  Zucker also doubled and tripled down on covering tantalizing stories that once lived in supermarket tabloids.  He does so to transform the decades biggest athlete and c-list celebrity, O,J. Simpson, into the decades biggest newsmaker.

GMA purposely avoided daily O.J. coverage while Today’s ratings soared.  In time, ABC saw what NBC was doing and realized they needed a change.  ABC News took over running GMA.  Viewers began leaving.  Today motored to the top spot in morning show ratings.  At this time, Bryant Gumbel wanted split screen-time with Katie Couric.  Zucker balked and fired Gumbel.  Enter Matt Lauer. Lauer was already reading the news.  No he’d become co-host.  

They soon introduced segments such as “where in the world is Matt Lauer”, a take-off of the game “where in the world is Carmen Sandiego.  Critics questioned what these segments had to do with reporting news.  However, the Today Show saw its biggest win, beating GMA 6 million to 3 million.  This was the Today Show’s first win in decades.  

ABC had to tweak.  Joan Lunden’s 17 years as co-host ends.  Charlie Gibson soon follows.  In the ‘90’s, every anchor problem was solved with one of two words: Diane or Barbara.  Former Nixon speechwriter and, at the time, ABC Primetime Live host, Diane Sawyer was chosen for GMA.  They also needed someone tough enough to compete against the man running the Today Show.  They settled on Diane’s friend and news producer Shelly Ross to be new GMA Executive Producer.  Her first order of business was to run across the country and personally convince Charlie Gibson to return.

Diane Sayer and Charlie Gibson were a breath of fresh air for GMA.  The duo, with Shelly Ross behind the scenes, started eating into the Today Show’s lead.  GMA looked at Today Show’s Rockefeller Plaza and said “we can do that”.  They owned a building in Times Square, so they said let’s just do it there.  What I gather from this whole thing is that ABC continuously says, “let’s do what NBC does”.  The studio ABC created was twice the size of Today.  GMA soon gained 1 million viewers, cutting into Today’s lead and revenue.  

The two shows would stop at nothing, from playing on sentiment and grief, to espionage, to get a guest before their competition.  Sabotaging the other show? No problem.  GMA puts on a concert in the park. Zucker orders a helicopter to buzz the crowd during the show.  Today books Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire couple and what does ABC do? GMA swoops in and airs an interview with the couple before NBC airs theirs.  It got so bad that the EP’s had to get together on the phone and hash things out.  Shelley Ross, however, was never able to close the gap on GMA’s rival. In October 2000, NBC adds a third hour to Today, banking an extra $70 million in annual profits.  Two months later, Zucker is promoted to head of NBC, ending the biggest producer v producer grudge match in t.v. history.

At 8:46 on September 11, 2001, the morning shows find themselves in the middle of an unprecedented American tragedy.  In the days and weeks following 9-11, the Today Show is consumed by the story and ratings lag.  Shelly Ross’ brash management style caused her departure and some to celebrate it.  In the spring of 2012, GMA earns their first one-week win over the Today Show in 17 years.  Couric had retired from NBS.  Matt Lauer was head of the Today Show. There were reports of Lauer cheating on his wife and having staff affairs.  Despite off-screen drama, the shows troubles are blamed on recently promoted co-host Anne Currie, who is abruptly shuffled off the anchor desk.  Shortly before her firing, she warned executives about Lauer.  Five years later, Lauer would be fired amid allegations of sexual misconduct.  

The Smart Phone has basically rendered morning tv useless.  Both shows are now in the streaming world.  

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of Dark Side of the ‘90’s from Vice Network.  If so, there’s good news! After two years, there will be a new season of Dark Side of the ‘90’s premiering next month! 

Here are links to my podcast, Blendertainment:   


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