The annual upfront negotiations produce plenty of

The annual upfront negotiations produce plenty of buzz about what the prime-time schedule will bring come fall: Which series will get a new time slot? Which newcomer promises to become the next Desperate Housewives or Friends? Which past-his-prime movie star will be brought out of mothballs to helm yet another sitcom?

But this year, advertisers and buyers at the upfronts also had mornings on their mind. Nearly two months after Katie Couric announced she would fly her longtime perch at NBC’s No. 1 Today show for the CBS Evening News and Meredith Vieira of ABC’s The View was tapped to take over, speculation about the future of the a.m. daypart—now generating nearly $1 billion in annual ad business and solidly the biggest moneymaker for the nets after prime—has refused to die down.

The subject of mornings heated up again last week, with news that Charlie Gibson—who, along with Diane Sawyer, co-hosts ABC’s Good Morning America—would become anchor of the net’s World News Tonight, leaving GMA at the end of June.

Americans are working longer, rising earlier, and developing an ever-growing appetite for news, weather and traffic along with their Pop Tarts. Advertisers have taken notice, feeding the three network morning shows—Today, GMA and CBS’ The Early Show—a combined $973 million last year, up from $659 million in 2000 and $321 million a decade ago, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus. Local stations and cable channels are also attracting those early risers in masses, with Fox’s Fox and Friends, CNN’s American Morning, MSNBC’s Imus in the Morning, ESPN2’s Cold Pizza and others becoming players in the daypart.

Advertisers increasingly see mornings as a means of reaching informed, affluent consumers in a daypart that gives them a bit more bang for their buck. “Morning is less expensive than prime,” explains Pattie Garrahy, CEO of PGR Media. “Pharmaceutical, healthcare, automotive and a lot of other categories that, as little as a decade ago, weren’t looking at mornings as a place to be, now are embracing it wholeheartedly—and they’re seeing the buying power of women.”

Adds Marty Daly, senior vp, director of news and late-night sales at CBS, “The early-morning daypart has been a healthy daypart in terms of scatter advertising for many years. This year, it’s one of the few dayparts with higher scatter pricing. It is a good value point for advertisers and certainly a shining star for network TV.”

To John Kelly, NBC’s senior vp, news network sales, the appeal of the morning shows is clear. “In this world, where we’re bombarded with information and news and data virtually 24 hours a day, we get ’em fresh, at the start of the day,” he says. “Eyeballs are watching, and that brings advertisers.”

Today executive producer Jim Bell adds that morning viewers “wake up and want, in a post-9/11 world, to understand that everything is still in one piece. In a world of exploding niche programming, we’re broadcasters, we still have a big-tent feel and appeal to as wide an audience as possible with news, medical information, books, music, entertainment. Morning television provides great range.”

As for what’s ahead for Today, with its record 545-week ratings domination, the Katie-Meredith changeover “has not diminished demand [among advertisers] by one iota,” Kelly says. “I cannot think of one conversation with one client who has expressed apprehension or concern.”

Naturally, the NBC folks are putting the best face on the Today transition. Bell says that while saying goodbye to Couric will be “difficult,” Vieira is “the perfect choice. She feels right to us.” He hints that the show (with 6 million viewers, compared to GMA’s 5.2 million and The Early Show’s 2.9 million) may experiment with Today’s tried-and-true format upon Vieira’s arrival; for example, having Vieira and co-host Matt Lauer team up on segments. Morning “is a very unique time of day when you can still surprise people,” Bell says.

For the most part, media buyers have high hopes about the Vieira-Lauer pairing. But that optimism is not universal. And No. 2 GMA, which has dramatically closed the gap with Today in recent years, stands ready to steal thunder from the front-runner should it underdeliver post-Katie. Meanwhile, CBS is holding out that The Early Show, the morning’s perennial No. 3, will benefit should viewers opt to flip channels.

Adding to the drama during the upfronts: a flurry of news reports contemplating what’s ahead for ABC’s GMA. (This was the week before Gibson’s jump was announced.) News of a possible shakeup at GMA was ill-timed. As Garrahy says, “The worst thing you can have during an upfront is uncertainty.” Catherine Sullivan, ABC’s senior vp, news sales, downplayed the importance of who’s sitting in the anchor chair. “In news, unlike entertainment, each network has its own specific brand identification. It’s less about the person who’s on the air than the philosophy of the news division,” she says. “People have their habits and are comfortable coming to ABC in the morning. They love Charlie and Diane, but they love ABC because they trust ABC to be accurate and credible.”

As for the Today makeover, some close watchers of the morning match-ups are taking a wait-and-see position. “I think Meredith Vieira is a very smart woman, but she has a harder edge than Katie,” says one media exec who did not want to be identified. “Anytime you make a major change, you run the risk of creating sampling for your show, or sampling for your competitors. If the new talent is not appealing to [viewers], you’re inviting them to take a look around.”

John Rash, senior vp, director of broadcast negotiations at Campbell Mithun, predicts that things at Today will be business as usual. “While the loss of Katie will present new challenges and create a potential disruption in [Today’s] dominance, Meredith Vieira is a well-known personality who should mesh well not only with her co-host but with the show’s tonality as well.” Rash looks for the horserace between NBC and ABC to rage on, while CBS is unlikely to see any real gains—either as the result of talent changes at Today or GMA, or as the result of Couric’s star power once she’s arrived at CBS. “[Interim Evening News anchor] Bob Schieffer’s audience ascendancy has not fueled a surge in the morning news [ratings],” Rash says. “Katie Couric taking the anchor chair won’t either, necessarily.”

Adds Andy Donchin, Carat’s senior vp, national broadcast director, “The Today show franchise is bigger than Katie Couric.” Morning shows have become “appointment viewing,” he adds, and “just like the evening newscasts, there are loyal audiences for CBS, NBC and ABC.”

GMA executive producer Ben Sherwood says of the Today changes, “There’s a great opportunity in the fall for Good Morning America to move closer to the ratings champs. It’s a once-in-a-generation change.” It would, in fact, seem a prime opportunity for GMA. So long as she stays put, Sawyer’s mass appeal continues to make the show a player. And ABC’s powerhouse prime-time lineup—with hits like Desperate Housewives, Lost and Grey’s Anatomy—also is expected to continue lifting the sails of the morning show. The Today show bested GMA by more than 2 million viewers in the late ’90s, but over the last year GMA has come close to Today in the weekly ratings match-up and managed to pull off wins on certain days.

CBS’ Daly—charged with drumming up business for the No. 3 Early Show—says that changes in the daypart “create enough uncertainty sometimes in an advertiser’s mind, so the best way to buy early morning television on a national basis is to buy all three.” CBS has found a lucrative moneymaker in sponsored features, including its wellness series Healthwatch.

The person with perhaps the greatest perspective about the morning marketplace is Steve Friedman, vp, morning broadcasts at CBS, who served as executive producer of Today twice—from 1979 to 1987, and again from 1993 to 1994. He also launched the offbeat a.m. show Cold Pizza on ESPN2.

Friedman won’t predict how many viewers The Early Show might pick up, but he thinks it is well-positioned to benefit from the changing players at Today and GMA this fall. He speculates that some fans of Vieira on The View might follow her to Today, therefore hurting GMA. Likewise, the hoopla surrounding Couric’s arrival at CBS and her becoming “the face of the network” could have a positive spillover effect on the morning program, he reckons. With all the changes in mornings, sampling, he says, is all but certain, “and in our position, churning is good because it gives us an opportunity.”

Friedman says he’s tried to give The Early Show—with its multitude of anchors, including Harry Smith, Julie Chen, Hannah Storm and René Syler—a competitive edge by instituting a “looser” format. Friedman admits there’s no reinventing the wheel here. “You can try to create a new pie, or get a bigger piece of the existing pie,” he shrugs. “I’m not a believer in radical changes, being different just to be different. I believe [the morning shows] are talk shows in nature. Basically, everybody is doing the show we invented in the ’80s and ’90s.”

Adds Friedman, “My philosophy here is for us to start doing the best job, get people talking about the show and sampling it when there’s a change at the first-place show, and building audience from what we do on the air. And quite frankly, hope that somebody gives us a chance by screwing up.” Tony Case is a contributing writer to Mediaweek.

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