Gary Levin, USA TODAY
NBC's Today, struggling to regain its status as the top-ranked morning show, is making changes behind the scenes.
The game plan? "To be bold, to be fresh and to push the envelope a little bit," says Don Nash, a 23-year veteran of the show who was named executive producer of the four-hour weekday telecast on Wednesday. He replaces Jim Bell, executive producer since 2005, who is returning to NBC Sports as lead producer of its Olympics coverage, a role he filled for last summer's London Games.
The show, a huge profit center for NBC, has had its share of troubles: Ratings are down 17% this season, and starting last April ABC's Good Morning America began besting Today in the ratings, a run interrupted only during NBC's two-week Summer Olympics coverage.
And a poorly executed handoff from Ann Curry to Savannah Guthrie last June, a year after Curry had replaced co-host Meredith Vieira, angered longtime Curry supporters, accelerating Today's decline.
GMA has benefited from a larger focus on entertainment, synergy with Dancing With the Stars and sympathy for co-anchor Robin Roberts' health problems, says Andrew Tyndall, who monitors network news for The Tyndall Report. Today producers "have always been really good at seeing what GMA is doing and counter-punching and keeping the lead, but that hasn't worked."
"There was a change in the anchor desk, and we saw viewers go away after that," says Nash, who started as an NBC page in Burbank, Calif., and has worked at Today for the remainder of his career. "But my sense is slowly, people are seeing the new team and they're starting to get it," he says.
Guthrie, a lawyer and former White House correspondent who co-anchored NBC's election coverage, has "brought life and sparkle to the show. I am convinced this is the right team."
And, Nash adds, "there's no plan to go, quote, more entertainment" in response to GMA.
For the TV season to date, GMA, up 3% over last year, leads Today by nearly 600,000 viewers, though in recent weeks that gap has narrowed. For the week of Oct. 29, GMA led by a still-significant 231,000.
Alexandra Wallace, the chief deputy to NBC News chief Steve Capus, was also named executive in charge of Today, suggesting a turnaround is a top priority. Capus says recent coverage of the election and Hurricane Sandy is steering Today in the right direction. "The news cycle has played in our favor, and it's not a coincidence that our ratings have tightened."
And while Wallace will provide an "extra set of eyes" to set the tone for Today and troubleshoot, Capus says Nash, offered the job Tuesday, will run the day-to-day broadcast as of Dec. 3. After looking elsewhere, "We turned to the guy that was Jim's No. 2 as an indicator that this is a very strong broadcast," he says.