By Liana B. Baker and Lisa Richwine
(Reuters) - NBC's "Today" is revamping its show as it tries to retake the ratings lead it held for decades, adding "The Voice" host Carson Daly and a new set to lure back viewers who defected last year to ABC's "Good Morning America."
"Today," which generates the bulk of the profits for NBC's news division, is looking to recapture viewers it lost after anchor Ann Curry left in June 2012. Earlier that spring, "Good Morning America" snapped the show's 16-year winning streak atop the morning ratings.
"We want to be very competitive in the morning wars," Matt Lauer, the show's co-host, said on the new orange-hued set in Rockefeller Center on Thursday from which he and fellow hosts Savannah Guthrie and Al Roker will be seen starting Monday.
"Good Morning America" on Walt Disney Co's ABC leads the ratings race in total viewers and among 25- to 54-year-olds, the group advertisers target during the morning shows. "GMA" averaged nearly 2 million viewers in that age group, about 86,000 more than "Today," according to Nielsen data from September 24, 2012, through September 1, 2013.
Third-place "CBS This Morning," which has steadily grown its audience since it rebranded with a bent toward hard news in January 2012, averaged 1 million in 25- to 54-year-olds.
Advertisers spent an estimated $515 million last year for the 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. time slot, according to Kantar Media, and it is among the more profitable parts of a network's schedule, according to Jon Swallen, Kantar's chief research officer.
"Today's" share of that market has dropped to 50.1 percent from 59.1 percent in 2010, according to Kantar's numbers.
"You used to be able to just buy 'Today' and maybe a little CBS," said Aaron Cohen, chief media negotiator for Horizon Media. The marketing and advertising firm buys morning show ads for clients that include Geico, Capital One and Weight Watchers.
Cohen said "Today" is still valuable to advertisers because it trails "Good Morning America" by a just tiny margin among women 25 to 54, a key morning demographic.
Turning around the morning program has been a focus of Comcast, which bought control of NBC Universal in 2011 and installed former Comcast Cable President Steve Burke as chief executive of the TV and film unit. The company brought in Patricia Fili-Krushel, an ally of Burke, to oversee business operations of the news division, as well as cable channels MSNBC and CNBC.
The job of overhauling the show was given to Deborah Turness, a former ITV executive in Britain who oversees the NBC News division, including breaking news coverage at its bureaus as well as shows including "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams," the "Today" show, "Meet the Press" and "Dateline."
"We are a news show. I'll say it again. We are a news show," Turness told reporters. "We must be ambitious, we must be enterprising," she said.
To rebuild the audience, Turness says the show will stress exclusives and breaking news stories in a lineup that regularly features cooking segments, outdoor concerts and wacky YouTube videos.
She listed some recent "Today" exclusives, including an interview with cooking show cost Paula Deen, who had been involved in a scandal, an interview with the lawyer for convicted national securities leaker Bradley Manning, who revealed his client wanted a sex change, and interrogation tapes with Ariel Castro, who was convicted of holding three women hostage in a Cleveland home.
The hub of the show will be a new set, which features a desk area for hosts that can rotate 360 degrees, state of the art weather screens for Roker, bright orange couches, and Daly's new digital set, which will allow him to chat with guests after they appear on the main set.
The space is also designed for social media interaction with guests, including live stream interviews, and real-time analysis of social data and reactions from the web.
NBC did not say what it spent on the upgrades.
The news bent Turness intends to install at "Today" is a bid to stop the advance of the "CBS This Morning," which is in third place but has closed the gap since launching in January 2012. Hosted by Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Norah O'Donnell, it has positioned itself as a hard-news alternative to its two more heavily viewed competitors.
"CBS This Morning" has averaged 2.8 million total viewers so far this season, up 13 percent from a year earlier, but still about 1.8 million behind the No. 2 "Today."
"NBC doesn't really think about CBS, but they might need to in the future," said Brian Stelter, a New York Times reporter and author of "Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV."
(Reporting by Liana B. Baker and Lisa Richwine; Editing by Ronald Grover and Chris Gallagher)