Has NBC's 'Today' got its mojo back?

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By Variety:

Savannah Guthrie and Willie Geist had a lot to smile about Friday morning as they opened yet another broadcast of NBC's venerable "Today' show: A concert from Fall Out Boy was set for later in the program, and the team had prepared newsy segments on stunt pilots, a prison breakout and even LeBron James exposing himself on national TV during the NBA Finals.

Yet music and stories aren't the only things that might make the staff at "Today" happy these days. After ceding 16 years of morning-show dominance to ABC's "Good Morning America" in 2012 amidst a poorly received ouster of co-host Ann Curry, "Today" seems to be gaining new momentum against its rival.

NBC News executives have quietly examined nearly every element of the program since its fall from grace. Over the months, producers have sped up the pace of the program, according to a person familiar with the show, and have tried to place emphasis on live, news-making interviews without losing some of the frivolous stuff that has long been a part of morning-program routines. Earlier this month, co-anchor Matt Lauer scored an interview with comedian Tracy Morgan, in his first public interview since being severely injured in a car crash.

Internally, this person said, NBC News executives feel the current on-air team at "Today," anchored by Lauer and Savannah Guthrie with Natalie Morales and Al Roker, "is gelling after a period of upheaval and transition."

Robin Roberts, George Stephanopoulos and the rest of the "GMA" crew continue to hold forth at the most-watched morning program in the U.S. "Today," however, has made new strides and recently trumped "GMA" in the audience that advertisers in news programming covet most in three of the last four weeks and four of the last seven.

To be certain, the most recent margins are slim. "Today's" lead in viewers between 25 and 54 (the audience advertisers pay for) was just 9,000 for the week of June 1. Season to date, "GMA" leads "Today" by 123,000 viewers between 25 and 54, and by 579,000 viewers overall.

Even so, the ratings battle is worth scrutiny, because the victory in the so-called "advertiser audience" can sometimes herald something bigger in the works. ABC's "World News Tonight" began scoring victories in that ratings category over several months, then in April beat NBC's "Nightly News" in total viewers. "Nightly" had dominated the category since September 2009.

SEE MORE: NBC's 'Today' Scores Rare Demo Victory Over ABC's 'Good Morning America'

At ABC News, the policy has never been to let "Good Morning America" rest on its laurels. "We know our competition has been there and will always be there," Tom Cibrowski, the ABC News executive who supervised "GMA" when it trumped "Today" in the ratings, told Variety in 2013. "We always play from behind. We never really stop playing from behind." Cibrowski is now a senior vice president at ABC News. Michael Corn, a one-time "GMA" staffer who went on to exec produce "World News" when it was anchored by Diane Sawyer, has returned to the morning show as the lead supervisor.

In recent weeks, "GMA" has followed meteorologist Ginger Zee into exotic places and on daring stunts. Co-host Stephanopoulos, who recently apologized to viewers for not disclosing donations he made to the Clinton Foundation, has scored a number of interviews with Rick Santorum, Lindsay Graham and others announcing bids for the office of U.S. president.

A sense is emerging at "Today" that viewers "are starting to forgive us for Ann being moved off show," said the person familiar with the program. "They are giving us another chance."

At the same time, viewers are giving other morning programs a chance, too. "CBS This Morning," which eschews many of the lighter elements of toast-and-cereal television, has made gains among viewers between 25 and 54, notching significant increases in that category even as it trails the NBC and ABC programs. With MSNBC, Fox News Channel, CNN and others also pitching for morning views, the breakfast battle seems far from decided.

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