Keeping a watch on TV

Good Morning America may be bringing in a Newman, but viewers still live for Today

Sympathy for new widow Katie Couric can’t entirely explain the ratings surge for Today (NBC, weekdays, 7-9 a.m.), which nearly beats the combined numbers of its kaffeeklatsch competitors, Good Morning America (ABC, weekdays, 7-9 a.m.) and This Morning (CBS, weekdays, 7-9 a.m.). It’s the effortless chemistry between Couric, coanchor Matt Lauer, newsreader Ann Curry, and meteorologist Al Roker that keeps ’em coming back. The Peacock had better reach deep into its corporate pockets to keep Couric, whose contract is due for renewal. If Geraldo Rivera merits $5 million a year, she’s worth twice that. Couric’s more than just a perky face. Her sweet-as-apple-pie image allows her to ask tough-as-Ted Koppel questions. She recently grilled Monica Lewinsky’s dad to a crisp: ”Do you think there’s any part of your daughter that’s enjoying all this attention?” Lauer still tends to preface his skeptical queries with ”Some people will say…” He should take a cue from his pull-no-punches cohort.

That said, Lauer and Couric make a marvelous team. Today deserves credit for taking risks in the past few years that have paid huge ratings rewards. Replacing prickly Bryant Gumbel with chipper Lauer was a big gamble. So was building a studio with windows that look out onto Manhattan’s Rockefeller Plaza. Despite the distracting dorks who press their noses against the glass, the crowds have added a sense of spontaneity to Today that makes the competition seem canned and airless. When Couric recently uttered an unintentional double entendre before an animal segment (”You’ve been playing with the monkey this morning, haven’t you, Matt?”), Lauer and Roker’s naughty-schoolboy snickering was live TV at its best.

The camaraderie between GMA‘s Lisa McRee and her newly anointed coanchor, Kevin Newman, feels far more forced. (McRee: ”I’m so happy you’re my new partner.” Newman: ”This is going to be a long and happy romance.”)

ABC is clearly tearing a page out of Today‘s promote-from-within playbook by elevating its hipper, hunkier newsreader to succeed stodgy old Charles Gibson, who’ll stay at ABC after reportedly losing out on a Biography-hosting gig with A&E. Newman seems like a nice enough guy and, unlike Gibson, he doesn’t suffer from Charlie Rose’s disease (an obsessive love of one’s own voice). But can a bespectacled Canadian with a wife and two kids ever compete with sex symbol Lauer — whose latest girlfriend’s identity was fodder for an Entertainment Tonight teaser? In the post-Matt world, morning anchors may need hard bodies more than hard-news credentials.

McRee’s displacement of Joan Lunden hasn’t aided GMA in the Nielsens, and it’s not difficult to see why. While slightly less plastic and bubbleheaded than her predecessor, McRee bears such an eerie physical resemblance to Lunden that’s it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that GMA simply traded in Joan for a younger model.

Good Morning America
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