November 29, 2017 / 11:46 PM / a year ago

Lauer's firing challenges NBC in morning show wars

Nov 29 (Reuters) - The abrupt departure of “Today” co-host Matt Lauer may send some viewers to morning-news alternatives, at least in the short term, as NBC charts a course without its star anchor, media and advertising experts said on Wednesday.

Comcast Corp’s NBC News said it had fired Lauer after a colleague accused him of inappropriate sexual behavior. Lauer’s agent Ken Lindner did not respond to requests for comment.

Lauer’s exit likely will prompt some “Today” viewers to check out rival programming, said Mark Fratrik, senior vice president and chief economist of media research firm BIA/Kelsey.

“I am sure there will be people who sample the other morning shows,” Fratrik said. Whether those people return to “Today” depends on who replaces Lauer, if they have chemistry with co-hosts such as longtime weatherman Al Roker, and if the network makes any changes to the show’s programming.

“It’s a complicated formula of what entices people to these shows,” Fratrik said.

NBC did not name a replacement for Lauer on Wednesday, and spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment.

Media experts suggested one possibility could be Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News anchor who hosts “Megyn Kelly Today” on NBC. At a Business Insider conference, Kelly brushed off a question about whether she would want Lauer’s job, saying, “Oh God, stop that.”

“Today” dominated the morning show wars during much of Lauer’s tenure of more than 20 years, but in 2012 was dethroned as ratings leader by “Good Morning America” on Walt Disney Co’s ABC network.

This year, “Good Morning America” has attracted 4.3 million viewers on average compared with 4.1 million on “Today,” according to Nielsen data.

“Today” leads among viewers age 25 to 54, the demographic most coveted by advertisers on news programs. The show earned $509 million in advertising revenue last year, more than any of its competitors, New York-based analysts Kantar Media said.

Lauer was a key ingredient in that success, said Mary Murphy, associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

“Matt is the trustworthy and tough news man,” Murphy said. “Consistency on that show is important to viewers, so this will be disruptive.”

Morning show viewers also have been shown to be loyal no matter who is hosting. Data from Vizio Inc’s Inscape, which measures TV data on a second-by-second basis, shows morning audiences are less likely to switch to a competitor than at other times of the day.

“Today” will remain attractive to advertisers because viewers are likely to keep tuning in out of habit, said Barry Lowenthal, president of The Media Kitchen, a New York-based media buyer with clients that advertise during “Today.”

“Americans watch a certain way not because of who is on but because of what else they are doing,” he said. “Early morning works because that’s when we are getting ready and eating breakfast.”

Competitor “CBS This Morning,” the third-place U.S. morning show, fired co-host Charlie Rose after The Washington Post reported that eight women had accused him of sexual harassment. (Reporting by Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Jessica Toonkel and Sheila Dang in New York)

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