We size up ''Today,'' ''Good Morning America,'' and ''CBS This Morning''

By Rob Brunner
April 27, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

The morning-show format has been around for 60 years now, and you’d think a concept that launched the same year as The Ernie Kovacs Show might be smelling a little musty. But weirdly, the wake-up-TV blueprint is as vital as ever. Maybe it’s because the programs’ eclectic jumble of bite-size stuff resembles the way we now consume most info: Look, it’s Ricki Lake talking about last night’s Dancing With the Stars! Wow, Obama and Romney are close in the polls! Hey, here’s a funny dog video! Maybe it’s because news is actually new first thing in the morning, so a.m. shows avoid the staleness of their evening-news counterparts. Or maybe it’s just that the format is, quite simply, lots of fun, a nice way to ease into the day over a caffeinated beverage and a tub of Chobani.

Lately there’s been even more chatter about network breakfast TV than usual, with Katie Couric and Sarah Palin going head-to-head on GMA and Today, respectively; Matt Lauer signing a new multiyear contract; and GMA beating Today in the weekly ratings for the first time since 1995. With that in mind, I decided to try something that many people have probably never done: sitting through complete, start-to-finish episodes of each of the three network shows without ever changing the channel. Here’s what I discovered.

(April 16)
NBC, 7-10 a.m.
Launched in 1952, the genre pioneer remains a well-paced mix of serious news (the Secret Service sex scandal), home-ec tips (”spring-clean your diet”), and irresistible nonsense (women trimming flab by having feeding tubes shoved up their noses). In this episode, Savannah Guthrie was subbing for the polarizing Ann Curry, and she’s a pleasantly perky counterpart to the charmingly low-key Matt Lauer. (I’ve never warmed to the somewhat stiff Curry, who replaced Meredith Vieira last summer.) But it was the huh? stuff that really kept me watching. Thomas Kinkade had a long battle with alcoholism? Actually, I am kind of interested in that. Chin-implant surgery is up 71 percent due to webcam use? Tell me more!
Low Point Cornball forecaster Al Roker making inane chatter with tourists while wearing a Brick Tamland-ish gold-striped tie.
High Point Lauer’s query to Rashida Jones, a star of NBC’s Parks and Recreation: “Why do you think this show has resonated when — to be quite blunt — some shows on NBC have not?”

Good Morning America
(April 17)
ABC, 7-9 a.m.
Though GMA‘s formula is similar to Today‘s, it’s easy to see why it’s been gaining on its chief competitor: The set crackles with energy and authentic bonhomie. Cohosts Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos — along with Lara Spencer, weather dude Sam Champion, and rising star Josh Elliott — seem to be having genuine fun up there, like when all five hosts were reduced to audible guffaws by a clip of a cat ramming itself into a mirror.
Low Point A ridiculously in-depth look at ”shocking photos” of Pippa Middleton next to a guy waving a fake gun (this ”news” was also covered extensively on Today).
High Point Stephanopoulos’ smart interview with Veep‘s Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

CBS This Morning
(April 18)
CBS, 7-9 a.m.
CBS’ subdued morning show seems to lean toward the retirement set. Cohosted by Gayle King, Charlie Rose, and Erica Hill, This Morning replaced the long-running Early Show in January, and while its experiment with a.m. seriousness is admirable, it’s not exactly invigorating. The centerpiece of this episode was a two-part discussion with House Speaker John Boehner — a substantive interview with a significant figure, no doubt, but rough going at 7 a.m. Other notable moments included a profile of an opera singer who’s had two double-lung transplants, and a telling interstitial snippet of the Grateful Dead’s ode to aging, ”Touch of Grey.” Watching This Morning after a bout of insomnia might result in a face-plant into your cornflakes.
Low Point A deadly segment on the supposed ”kings of classical-music comedy.”
High Point King and Rose’s typically sharp interview with Judd Apatow, promoting The Five-Year Engagement. ”Comedy is hard,” Rose remarked to the producer. ”It is,” Apatow replied, but ”it’s not as hard as this — as what you’re doing.” Apatow then informed Rose that he watches his PBS show every night, partly because he’s a fan, but also because it used to put his 8-year-old immediately to sleep.