New morning sizzle between NBC's 'Today' and ABC's 'Good Morning America'

The Associated Press

This Feb. 24, 2014 photo released by NBC shows, from left, Carson Daly, Natalie Morales, Savannah Guthrie, Matt Lauer, Al Roker, and Ronan Farrow on "Today," in New York. After winning in the ratings for two weeks during the Winter Olympics _ NBC's first weekly wins since the London games in summer 2012 _ the "Today" show has kept some of its momentum now that Matt Lauer, Savannah Guthrie and the team are back in the New York studio. (AP Photo/NBC, Peter Kramer)

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By DAVID BAUDER, AP Television Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — NBC's "Today" show didn't leave its mojo in Sochi and is feeling newly energized in the program's perpetual battle with ABC's dominant "Good Morning America."

After winning in the ratings for two weeks during the Winter Olympics — NBC's first weekly wins since the London games in summer 2012 — the "Today" show has kept some of its momentum now that Matt Lauer, Savannah Guthrie and the team are back in the New York studio.

"GMA" was back on top last week, recording 5.79 million viewers to 5.46 million at "Today," the Nielsen company said. The margin of some 330,000 viewers, however, compared favorably to the average 1.1 million viewer gap ABC had built up this television season heading into the Olympics.

"No one is high-fiving at this point," said Don Nash, "Today" executive producer, "but I do feel we are headed in the right direction and I do feel a sense of energy and momentum on the show right now."

Meanwhile, backstage at "Good Morning America," staff members held their own medal ceremony Thursday. The show is thrilled with its performance during the Olympics, said Tom Cibrowski, "GMA" senior executive producer.

"We fully expected to take something of a beating and we didn't," he said Friday.

The most encouraging sign for ABC is that "Good Morning America" didn't lose viewers during the Olympics and its aftermath. During the Olympics, "Good Morning America" averaged 5.81 million viewers, compared with 5.77 million for the season prior to Sochi, Nielsen said.

ABC tried a new strategy.

Knowing that "Today" has its team at the Olympics and interviews the top athletes every day, "Good Morning America" figured in past years that it couldn't compete and largely ignored the event. But it's hard for a morning show to stay away from the country's main topic of conversation for two weeks, so this year ABC sent Amy Robach to Sochi and held Olympic-themed events outside its Times Square studio.

NBC tightened the race by bringing in new viewers. The show averaged a shade below 6 million viewers each day during the Olympics and drew 4.61 million on an average day prior to the games. The challenge for NBC will be keeping those new viewers, and it's a stretch to think they'll all stay.

"Whether the new viewers came from 'GMA' or anyone else, it doesn't matter to me," Nash said. "I just want to have as many people watching the broadcast as possible."

NBC and Deborah Turness, the network's news president, have worked hard the past few months to put a nightmarish stretch on what was once the country's favorite morning show behind them. ABC's team, led by Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos, capitalized on the bad vibes surrounding NBC's dumping of Ann Curry from "Today."

NBC built a new set for "Today," adding an orange arch on Rockefeller Plaza upon the return from Sochi, and added people like Willie Geist, Carson Daly and Tamron Hall. The show is more aggressively going after interviews, with Lauer speaking to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and Kerry Kennedy, and Guthrie to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg in recent weeks.

"There is absolutely a new engagement between the shows and on the part of both shows to up the ante even more," ABC's Cibrowski said. "I think we're all feeling that."

Big events, particularly live, provide the engine for growth at broadcast television, and that's being felt acutely in the morning. As much as possible, the shows are trying to engage viewers with interviews and surprises, like when "GMA" held a nationwide singalong to the song "Let it Go" last week or Guthrie went on a skydiving trip with Gabby Giffords.