NEW YORK – Susan Wurtzel owns a Today show T-shirt and a mug. When the stay-at-home mom and her family visited New York from their home in Germantown, Md., they joined the crowd of fans outside the NBC morning shows Rockefeller Center studio.
Now, after more than 20 years as a regular Today viewer, Wurtzel tunes to CBS most mornings.
Multiply such defections and you have the chief reason for televisions changing fortunes in morning news, where ABCs Good Morning America has ended NBCs epic 17-year winning streak on Today. ABC is growing – GMA has 110,000 more viewers each day this year than last – but not as much as NBC is slipping (437,000 viewers a day since last year).
Wurtzel, 57, left last spring because of Today co-host Ann Curry.
Anns interview style was like chalk on a board to me, she said. She leaned toward her interviewee and whispered her questions like someone had died. The more serious the interview, the quieter she got. When she replaced Meredith (Vieira), I tried to adjust and accept, but she just didnt work for me. Katie (Couric) and Meredith were relatable, empathetic and funny. Ann just seemed out of place.
Executives at NBC were quietly reaching the same conclusion and moved to replace Curry with Savannah Guthrie.
Then came June 28, 2012, Currys last day as co-host. She cried in bewilderment at her perceived failure at losing the job she had sought for years, as her uncomfortable co-workers and a nation looked on.
Suddenly, a problem for NBC became a BIG problem. Even people who didnt particularly like Curry loathed the way she was dispatched. Except for two weeks during the Olympics, Today hasnt sniffed first place in the ratings since.
During the first six months of 2012, Today averaged just under 5.2 million viewers each weekday. Since July 2, the audience has dropped to 4.59 million, according to Nielsen, the company that measures TV audiences. Without the two weeks of the London Olympics, the average is 4.3 million. Thats a stunning drop, even accounting for typical lower viewership in the summer.
An informal survey of three dozen viewers who have left or are considering leaving Today turned up various explanations, including a feeling that the show had leaned too far in the direction of lighter, pop culture fare.
The Curry dismissal was clearly a tipping point, however. William Runge, a manager at an educational cable network who lives in suburban Winston-Salem, N.C., likened the treatment of Curry to a public flogging.
The PR machine at NBC spent an enormous amount of time and effort convincing me that the Today show team was actually part of my family, Americas First Family, said Runge, 46, citing the shows advertising slogan. Guess what? They were right. These did feel like family members. So this is how you are going to treat a member of your family?
You can debate for hours whether Ms. Curry was right for the role, he said. Thats not the point. She was doing her job and was barely 11 months into it when they canned her in the most humiliating way possible.
The move was heart-wrenching, said Isabelle Langelier, a 40-year-old manager at a drug company from Montreal. It made me feel sick for her. And it made me turn the channel, probably permanently.
While I thought Ann Currys interviews were a little hokey at times, she is clearly the most genuine person in TV news, said Sarah Rosenthal, 53, a graduate student and mother of three from West Chester, Pa.
After her unceremonious dumping, I turned it off. I have nothing against Savannah, and adore Natalie Morales, but there is just a different tone to the show.
Even worse for NBC, a significant number of viewers appear to blame co-host Matt Lauer for the move. The network has consistently denied tabloid reports that Lauer was unhappy with Curry. Today Executive Producer Jim Bell said last month that firing Curry was his decision and that Lauer was being treated unfairly.
At least one-third of people who responded to a Twitter request to discuss the show cited its content for their discontent.
I used to be a regular Today show viewer but got tired of their formula, said Dan Laufer, 35, a sports marketer from Washington, D.C. Five minutes of hard news followed by an animal rescue story, the Kardashians and then pop culture or fashion. Its OK with me – in moderation.
Bell said his show will try to draw a greater contrast with its ABC rival in coming months. A recent ad with Lauer touts the informative nature of the show.