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Will Shakeups at ‘Early Show,’ ‘Today’ Boost ‘GMA’?

As ”Good Morning America“ goes after ”Today“ and CBS tries to get back to its roots, familiar morning rituals may change

The traditional morning recipe for early news shows — a mix of soft stories to ease viewers into the day and serious news they need to know — may be about to change.

While NBC's "Today" and CBS's "Early Show" are undergoing very public reshuffles, ABC's slightly modified "Good Morning America" has made quiet advances in total viewership — and sees Meredith Vieira's exit from "Today" as its chance to finally overtake the No. 1 morning show. CBS, meanwhile, wants to steer toward harder news in hopes of getting out of last place.

Also read: Meredith Vieira Announces 'Today' Exit; Ann Curry to Replace Her

Befitting its first place status, NBC's "Today" wants to change as little as possible about its perfected mix of solid news and comforting human-interest stories. On Wednesday, the show received six daytime Emmy nominations compared to one for "GMA" and none for "The Early Show." "Today" and "GMA" are the sole contenders in the category of outstanding morning program.

James Goldston, appointed senior executive producer of "GMA" in February by ABC News president Ben Sherwood after Goldston helped revive "Nightline," said Vieira's exit is a major opportunity for "GMA," already making progress against "Today."

"We're starting to put a little pressure on them," he told TheWrap. "Morning show traditions are ripe for reinvention. I think, day-to-day, 'GMA' is a more modern, a more highly produced, more interesting show," than its competitors, he said.

Also read: 'CBS Early Show' EP David Friedman Out as CBS Turns to Harder News

Among those changes, Goldston said, are interacting more with viewers through social networking, and treating the show as only the most visible part of a 24/7 "GMA" operation. The show has also welcomed back former "The Insider" host Lara Spencer, and added ESPN's Josh Elliott as its news reader. 

CBS has also shuffled its talent recently: Late last year, CBS ejected "Early Show" stars Harry Smith, Maggie Rodriguez and Dave Price, replacing them with Erica Hill, Chris Wragge and Marysol Castro on Jan. 3. That was only the beginning of what the network hopes is a new emphasis on original reporting over the frequent cuddliness of morning shows. 

But NBC, which tried to replace star power with star power when Vieira replaced Katie Couric on the "Today" show in 2006, this time is banking on familiarity: Curry has been the show's news reader since 1997.

The strategy seems safe, provided Lauer stays put. He delighted NBC executives Monday by shooting down the possibility of his leaving "Today" to reunite with Couric on her planned daytime talk show. 

His loyalty may be expensive, however. Lauer already makes $17 million a year, and without a clear succession plan (David Gregory, anyone?), NBC may have little choice other than to show the morning anchor the money.

"If I were NBC, I'd be hiring a dump truck and dumping a pile of money in Matt's backyard starting today," a former morning news producer told TheWrap. 

Also read: Matt Lauer: Katie Couric Re-Pairing 'Not Going to Happen'

All three networks' shows are essentially flat this season in the 25-54 year old demo most important to news advertisers. But from September through April, "GMA" has posted an 8 percent gain over its total viewership in the same period last year — hitting 4.7 million.

CBS and NBC are, in total viewers, again essentially flat: The "Early Show" has posted a 1 percent increase, to 2.8 million viewers, while "Today" has slipped 1 percent to 5.5 million viewers. But ABC notes that it has closed the gap on NBC in total viewers versus the year-ago week in 30 of 32 weeks this season.

The rankings are almost the inverse, curiously, of the networks' positions overall. Top network CBS has long struggled to break the "Early Show" out of third, and "Today" is one of the sunniest spots for fourth-place NBC. 

As NBC and ABC fight for the broadest audience share, CBS hopes to stake out a harder-news niche by playing up the tradition of serious news, interviews and analysis best epitomized by its flagship, "60 Minutes."

Internally, CBS News' morning program has often been treated with derision among the division's staff and reporters for being chronically soft to the point of runniness. However, there was also a belief that the network did not provide the resources necessary to compete with NBC and ABC to break the big stories. 

"At CBS, the attitude was never send seven crews and three trucks to break a big news story. It was you send three crews and one truck. If they want to compete, they need to flood a story with resources," the former morning news producer told TheWrap. 

Mired in third place for more a decade, CBS has the freedom to engage in a merciless makeover — one that didn't end with the ouster of Price, Rodriguez and Smith. 

On Monday, after Vieira announced she would pass her duties to Vieira, CBS News announced the firing of "Early Show" executive producer David Friedman, saying he wasn't the right fit for the new "Early Show."

The NBC public announcement was vintage "Today": It broke big news, but in a smooth and comforting way. Vieira playfully joked about Lauer being annoying, and praised her replacement, Curry, who in turn said she felt "like the high school computer nerd who was just asked to the prom by the quarterback of the football team." She then said the focus should be on Vieira, and ceded the attention back to her.

CBS's internal announcement, meanwhile, was professionally matter-of-fact. While respectful of Friedman's talents and contribitions to the show, CBS News chairman Jeff Fager and CBS News president David Rhodes said in an e-mail to staff that the kind of show they wanted was "not the kind of show that David Friedman was hired to run." 

Fager had made clear what kind of show he wanted three weeks earlier, when he sent out a memo urging "Early Show" staff to focus more on CBS' own reporting. He drew a contrast between the Monday morning show and Sunday's exclusive-rich "60 Minutes" and "Face the Nation."

"CBS News had a great weekend," Rhodes wrote. "And a bad Monday morning."

Of course, the "Early Show" team got off easy, compared to the show's previous on-air talent.

Brent Lang contributed to this report. 

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