When Brian Stelter started writing Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV two years ago, it didn’t seem a hot subject, especially compared with the wars in late-night comedy. By the time the book was released on April 23, though, morning TV was in a state of war, and Stelter’s book was eagerly awaited. An advance excerpt in the New York Times, about behind-the-scenes fights at Today, became one of the paper’s most-viewed articles, and the tribulations of Today star Matt Lauer have even overshadowed the selection of Jimmy Fallon to host the Tonight Show. “It was so shocking when they lost last year,” Stelter says, referring to the end of Today’s 17-year ratings winning streak, which made everyone realize that “there’s so much at stake in the morning.” Morning shows aren’t just placid places where you go for headlines and friendly banter; they’re a vicious battleground.
One reason is that there are more of these shows, taking more varied approaches. ABC’s Good Morning America surpassed NBC’s Today in the ratings when, as Stelter put it, it “went more entertaining, more fun and games,” while CBS This Morning has become the place to go for older TV-watchers who want serious interviews. And since these shows are fighting with cable over a shrinking pool of viewers—the Nielsen company published a study this April showing that educated, demographically desirable viewers now watch less TV in the morning—they have to resort to more gimmicks, from what Stelter calls the “swooping camera moves and Steadicam shots” on MSNBC’s Morning Joe to the conservative anti-Obama cheeriness of Fox & Friends.
But the main thing that has called attention to these other shows is that Today, once the ratings champion, is in freefall. Lauer has been doing damage control after viewers blamed him for the firing of co-host Ann Curry, but it hasn’t worked. Stelter says the firing, and the perception that Lauer did nothing to stop it, “gave people a reason to dislike him,” and they did: the New York Times, where Stelter works as a reporter, revealed that Lauer’s popularity in polls has fallen by 50 per cent since Curry left.
It’s not unusual for viewers of morning TV to see hosts as heroes or villains—or in Lauer’s case, both. “People invite the hosts into their homes every morning,” says Wendy Freeman, president of CTV News, whose main morning show is Canada AM. “Hosts become part of their everyday routine, so when that routine gets disrupted it upsets the viewer.” Stelter says viewers don’t separate TV from real life, and want hosts to be actual pals: Good Morning America is popular because “several of the hosts hang out all the time in person, or at least they did when I was working on the book. You can tell.”
The Lauer disaster has proven that if hosts don’t seem like a family, the content of the show doesn’t matter. “The best compliment we can get is: ‘You’re just like you are on TV,’ ” says Steve Darling of Global BC Morning News, who introduces co-host Sophie Lui “as my TV wife, because I spend more time with her at certain times than I do with my own wife.”
The battle for the most likable host might matter more than ever now, since the news aspect has lost its relevance. “The point of morning TV has been to reassure you that nothing terrible happened,” Stelter says, but the Twitter era has changed that. He says “Good Morning America becoming a more entertainment-oriented show” was a response to this new reality, and Freeman says Canada AM tries to please news lovers but also “focus more on people’s lives, especially celebrities.”
But the biggest celebrities in morning TV are the hosts. Viewers reacted as if Lauer were a character on a fictional show, and in some ways, he is. “The best characters on morning TV know their roles,” Stelter says, from jolly weathermen to the All About Eve archetype of “the younger female character who the viewers think is being groomed and aspiring to a higher role.” With that kind of soap opera, it might not matter whether we get news elsewhere. “Viewers may already know the news,” Stelter adds, “but what they can’t get from an iPhone is companionship.” Not yet, anyway.