Morning Show Retreat

Posted: Feb 13, 2007 4:22 PM

Almost half a million fewer women tuned into the big three morning shows this season compared to last. And though that number may not be devastating to ABC, CBS, and NBC just yet, the 10 percent drop off is making networks and their advertisers (a good portion of whom have their revenues tied up in moms’ purse strings) nervous.

What’s the cause for the erosion, The Los Angeles Times, who reported the news last Friday, wanted to know. According to the various experts they spoke to, it’s not the simpering way Ann Curry has with an interview or Diane Sawyer’s self-congratulatory way of avoiding tough questions with left-leaning guests. Rather, one reason fewer women are waking up with Matt and Meredith is…wait for it…the war in Iraq!

"My gut instinct is it may have something to do with Iraq," said former CNN anchor and NBC correspondent Judy Woodruff, "The news is so negative and so depressing day after day that it may well be that everybody — and especially women, who may be able to identify with the mothers and sisters and daughters — it may be that they're reacting in this way. The news is not happy."

It seems worth pointing out to Woodruff that the phrase “If it bleeds it leads” existed long before the Bush administration and that the news, regardless of any progress being made in Iraq, has never been happy.

However, as reporter Matea Gold discovered, programming executives have pinpointed another, much-abused suspect: the weather. “They attribute it in large part to the unseasonably mild winter…noting that temperate weather draws people outside, and away from their television sets,” writes Gold.

Not to parse meteorological points, but plenty of regions have also seen unseasonably cold temperatures this month and that hasn’t kept West-Coast women glued to their sets in anticipation of hearing Ralph Nader, Terry McAuliffe, or Chuck Shumer answer softball questions about their latest soft-brained tomes.

Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer for the arm of the Nielsen ratings that tracks blog trends told the Times he believes the Internet can claim credit for siphoning off viewership. “The very issues that typically get covered on the morning shows are robust and alive in the blogosphere," said Blackshaw. "It's safe to say that the Internet is beginning to cannibalize a lot of these conversational topics."

That’s an interesting explanation, but not really a plausible one. Impressive multitaskers though they are, it’s hard to imagine many moms making breakfast, feeding babies, gulping coffee, and simultaneously searching the web for advice on choosing a handbag that doesn’t cause back pain. Along with that, most of the lifestyle segments GMA, Today, and The Early Show run don’t highlight the sort of information ladies would think to look for—they are more the sort of tips that simply sound useful when they happen to come up (you might be glad to know what the hot color trends for 2007 are, but would you actually go hunting about the Internet for such information?).

More likely the culprit is the same ratings disease that has infected all the network news programs—putting a bias spin on topics viewers aren’t terribly interested in anyway.

In the recent past this sickness has resulted in Good Morning America featuring guests like feminist professor Linda Hirshman, who exhorts the mothers watching to stop having babies, get off their lazy butts, and get back to the office. On the Today Show it has meant bringing out supremely vapid fashion editor Bobbi Thomas to show the stay-at-home crowd how to look sexy and professional in the latest styles. (Hint: if your audience is watching you at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, they’re probably less interested in workplace fashions than you think.)

If the internet has contributed anything to the decline, it is probably that female viewers are more savvy now and know when Meredith Vieira sights flatly incorrect statements like 33 percent of wives make more money than their husbands (the most recent stats put that number between 13 and 20 percent) or that a majority of American women are now single (Thomas Sowell demonstrated earlier how wrong that statistic is).

Or maybe the more traditional-minded gals likely to be watching television on weekday mornings would like to hear from some public intellectuals who don’t consider the nuclear family a gross anachronism. As it stands, radical authors like Eve Ensler, the writer responsible for The Vagina Monologues, outnumber conservative ones on morning shows by about a dozen to one.

Similarly, it could be that mothers are tired of being scared silly over every passing political fad the left has to trot out. Today Show producers should ask themselves whether it’s effective, ratings-wise, to open segments on global warming with the tagline, “What needs to be done to save the world?” Even if they don’t have doubts about the science cited by environmental activists, isn’t it possible that question might be a bit overwhelming for busy moms first thing in the morning?

Then again, perhaps, like climate change, the daybreak ratings dip could turn out to be a natural fluctuation that amounts to nothing. But if the trend continues to hold and Gold is correct that evening news relies on the profits of morning shows to operate, then perhaps we could be unburdened of both Katie and Meredith in one fell swoop. If it does come to that you can be sure it will be blamed on one of two things: the war or global warming.