DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Sixteen years - that is a long time to be number one. And this week, media critics and TV viewers are wondering whether NBC's "Today Show" can stay on top. There was a time, of course, when the name Katie Couric was synonymous with the "Today Show," helping them make it the ratings winner in morning news. And this week, Katie Couric could be the one who helps break that winning streak. Couric now works for ABC and all week, she's guest-hosting rival show "Good Morning America" with George Stephanopoulos.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA")
GREENE: Katie Couric and George Stephanopoulos, trying to find their rapport. Now, to counter Couric's presence on "Good Morning America," the "Today Show" on NBC is bringing in guest hosts all week. And this morning, it's former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Now, to talk about why the networks are playing musical chairs in the morning, we called up Brian Stelter at the New York Times. He writes about TV and the Web, and he's working on a book about morning TV. Brian, thanks for being here.
BRIAN STELTER: Thank you.
GREENE: Well, let's start with Katie Couric. I mean, 15 years at NBC and then that stint - several years as evening anchor at CBS. Now, she's at ABC - I mean, really, a network nomad.
STELTER: She was really back in her - what felt like a right place on Monday on her first day of the show. And, of course, she's on for five days. So all those viewers of the "Today Show" who have never really turned on "Good Morning America" before - well, now they have five different chances to try out "Good Morning America." And that's why this week seems so pivotal.
GREENE: Well, could she really be the X factor? I mean, could you see "Good Morning America" bumping the "Today Show" off this slat after 16 years?
STELTER: There's nobody inside ABC who will actually say that out loud, but there's lots of people outside the network who will predict that's going to happen this week. You know, it's been 16 years since ABC was number one in the morning for even a week, and there's no other streak like that in television. And there probably never will be again. It's really a lead that NBC wants to protect at all costs. But right now, ABC is gaining. They've been gaining momentum for months. Right now, they're basically just a suburb or two away from beating the "Today Show."
GREENE: Well, you know, there's a reason all of this maneuvering is happening - and as I understand it, a lot of it is money. Tell us how important money, advertising are on these morning programs.
STELTER: Yeah, these morning programs are highly profitable, for a couple of reasons. One is that they're on for so long. They've got a lot of ads within those two hours that they're on the air. And for the "Today Show," there's a premium associated with being number one. So it's not just the psychological benefit to be number one. There's also a financial benefit to be number one.
And all of these shows - at NBC, ABC and CBS - they really support the rest of their organizations. They are the most important financial pieces for these networks, in part because they're growing at a time when network television in general is eroding. People want to wake up in the morning and have a companion - be it on television, radio or the Internet. And that's something that isn't going away to the same degree that, say, prime time is being hurt by the DVR, or late night's being hurt by people who are just going to bed earlier.
GREENE: My eyebrows really went up when you said that these morning shows are growing. I mean, it's a time when most network, you know, television news is losing popularity. Why are these morning programs gaining in popularity?
STELTER: You know, thinking about it as a normal viewer, I would say I want to wake up in the morning and make sure everything's all right in the world. And the other reason, I think, is that people like having a voice or a face to wake up with. One of the anchors on one of these shows once said to me that you're choosing who to stand in front of naked in the morning, when you're getting out of the shower, or you're getting dressed. That's a very personal choice. And it's different than, say, who you're going to watch while you're making dinner.
GREENE: That's Brian Stelter of the New York Times. He's working on a book about morning TV, and he joined us from the New York Times offices in New York City. Brian, thanks so much for joining us.
STELTER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.