I recently picked as one of my summer reads Top of the Morning-inside the Cutthroat world of Morning TV by media columnist for the New York Times, Brian Stelter. The book is all about the morning TV battles, the segment or "daypart" that we in the media buying world refer to as "Early Morning." This window usually ranges from 6am to 9am and on the major broadcast networks includes the Today show on NBC, Good Morning America on ABC, and currently CBS This Morning on CBS. (The other big network, Fox, only has national programming through cable not on broadcast - that's relegated to the local affiliates).
In case you missed it, 2012 was quite the crazy year in this very important early morning television daypart. There was the whole Ann Curry debacle on Today; this coincided with ABC's ratings resurgence on Good Morning America where co-host Robin Roberts also was diagnosed with a rare bone marrow disease. The net result was Today lost a 17-year long ratings streak a week after Lauer signed a reportedly $25 million contract, and GMA grew it's viewer win margin week by week, especially after Curry's disastrous on-air firing from Today. This book chronicles this whole period and all the in-front-of-the-camera and behind-the-scenes drama that came along with it.
Why does this matter, especially to a media buying company? Well, besides the obvious that we buy television commercials in this time period to hit one of our client's target demographic (Women ages 25 to 54), it turns out this time of the day is pretty key to success of the entire broadcast network affecting other dayparts and the commercials that fall there. As Stelter points out, if the network wins the ratings race there, they win the advertising dollars as well, with each 100,000 viewers amounting to about $1 million in revenue. That can be some serious money that they can then turn around and invest in primetime and other programming. But winning ratings means not just winning ad dollars, but also interviews, performances and better bookings overall, which attracts more viewers, and thus the cycle continues.
Stelter, with his winsome prose and hilarous analogies, paints a pretty stark picture of what appears on air as innocent "infotainment," but off-camera is apparently cut-throat because so much money is at stake. He recounts stories of program bookers staking out hotel rooms of competing show's guest to try to lure them away to their own show. He shares many other stories to further convey how just much "content is king" in this world where each network is competing over eyeballs. Here's a selection from the book where he tells a story of how Maddie, a two-year-old coonhound who has gone viral for just standing on top of things like trucks, cabinets and canoes, is in danger of not making her segment on Good Morning America:
"There is no way to sugarcoat this, gentle reader. Josh Elliot's 'Play of the Day' segment may be in danger. [The overnight producer just received a call from] Theron Humprey, a thirty-year-old photographer who is Maddie's proud and opportunistic owner. When GMA discovered Maddie on the Web and asked to have her on the show, Humphrey rushed Maddie to LAX on his own dime, ready and willing to take a red-eye flight to NYC for the TV appearance that will last three minutes at most. But at the gate he discovered that Delta required the owners of pets to have a health certificate from a veterinarian, even if the beast travels with the luggage. After years of booking lizards and turkeys and cats and dogs, some heroes, others more into tricks and such, no one at GMA had known about the requirement. Now it looks as if it'll prevent Maddie from arriving in time for the show. Suddenly there's a poignant, dog-shaped hole where Segment 7 used to be." pg 173.
The book is full of stories from the dramatic morning TV world like when GMA was closing the ratings gap they brought in none other than Today show glory days alum Katie Couric to co-host for a week...so Today countered by bringing on Couric rival, Sarah Palin; also he recounts how the producers (many of whom have bounced around from network to network) structured their winning team for each program; and other interesting tales ranging from morning team on-screen rapport to the furniture picked for the set. It's very well written so I highly recommend it, even if you do not care about media or advertising. It's just good drama, and everyone loves that.
I also recommend reading Stelter's media articles on NYTimes.com, like this one from this week in which he recounts the latest in this AM saga, Today's new set and a new cast member. No one writes better about TV.