NEW YORK, N.Y. - NBC's "Today" show didn't leave its mojo in Sochi and is feeling newly energized in the program's perpetual battle with ABC's dominant "Good Morning America."
After winning in the ratings for two weeks during the Winter Olympics â€” NBC's first weekly wins since the London games in summer 2012 â€” the "Today" show has kept some of its momentum now that Matt Lauer, Savannah Guthrie and the team are back in the New York studio.
"GMA" was back on top last week, recording 5.79 million viewers to 5.46 million at "Today," the Nielsen company said. The margin of some 330,000 viewers, however, compared favourably to the average 1.1 million viewer gap ABC had built up this television season heading into the Olympics.
"No one is high-fiving at this point," said Don Nash, "Today" executive producer, "but I do feel we are headed in the right direction and I do feel a sense of energy and momentum on the show right now."
Meanwhile, backstage at "Good Morning America," staff members held their own medal ceremony Thursday. The show is thrilled with its performance during the Olympics, said Tom Cibrowski, "GMA" senior executive producer.
"We fully expected to take something of a beating and we didn't," he said Friday.
The most encouraging sign for ABC is that "Good Morning America" didn't lose viewers during the Olympics and its aftermath. During the Olympics, "Good Morning America" averaged 5.81 million viewers, compared with 5.77 million for the season prior to Sochi, Nielsen said.
ABC tried a new strategy.
Knowing that "Today" has its team at the Olympics and interviews the top athletes every day, "Good Morning America" figured in past years that it couldn't compete and largely ignored the event. But it's hard for a morning show to stay away from the country's main topic of conversation for two weeks, so this year ABC sent Amy Robach to Sochi and held Olympic-themed events outside its Times Square studio.
NBC tightened the race by bringing in new viewers. The show averaged a shade below 6 million viewers each day during the Olympics and drew 4.61 million on an average day prior to the games. The challenge for NBC will be keeping those new viewers, and it's a stretch to think they'll all stay.
"Whether the new viewers came from 'GMA' or anyone else, it doesn't matter to me," Nash said. "I just want to have as many people watching the broadcast as possible."
NBC and Deborah Turness, the network's news president, have worked hard the past few months to put a nightmarish stretch on what was once the country's favourite morning show behind them. ABC's team, led by Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos, capitalized on the bad vibes surrounding NBC's dumping of Ann Curry from "Today."
NBC built a new set for "Today," adding an orange arch on Rockefeller Plaza upon the return from Sochi, and added people like Willie Geist, Carson Daly and Tamron Hall. The show is more aggressively going after interviews, with Lauer speaking to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and Kerry Kennedy, and Guthrie to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg in recent weeks.
"There is absolutely a new engagement between the shows and on the part of both shows to up the ante even more," ABC's Cibrowski said. "I think we're all feeling that."
Big events, particularly live, provide the engine for growth at broadcast television, and that's being felt acutely in the morning. As much as possible, the shows are trying to engage viewers with interviews and surprises, like when "GMA" held a nationwide singalong to the song "Let it Go" last week or Guthrie went on a skydiving trip with Gabby Giffords.
Final ratings aren't in for this week, and it's expected to be a good one for ABC. Preliminary Nielsen estimates have "Good Morning America" topping 7 million viewers on Monday, when its post-Oscar coverage gives the show one of its most high-profile days of the year. "GMA" followed it up Tuesday with the announcement of a new "Dancing With the Stars" cast, a proven draw for its viewers.
Key for ABC is keeping its team together â€” probably the true secret to its success the past few years. "Good Morning America" recently lost forecaster Sam Champion to The Weather Channel. Since that network is owned by NBC Universal, "Today" has been able to team Champion with Al Roker to cover some of this winter's bad weather.
Most important, ABC has locked in Roberts with a new contract. It is negotiating to keep Josh Elliott, who's on the team with Lara Spencer and new weathercaster Ginger Zee.
NBC did win the February ratings "sweeps" period among viewers ages 25 to 54. That's very important for business reasons: The show uses that demographic for advertising sales, and morning TV is the most lucrative time in the broadcast business. CBS is also seeing ratings gains with its news-focused morning show, but "CBS This Morning" generally runs around 2 million to 3 million viewers behind the ABC and NBC shows.