Could this year’s Today show shake-up lead to a symbiotic Olympics ratings surge?
We won’t know for sure, of course, until the games begin later this week. But all the pieces are there. Ever since Matt Lauer’s departure from the franchise following accusations of sexual misconduct, Today anchor Savannah Guthrie and her newly installed co-host, Hoda Kotb, have been rocking the ratings, besting their arch-rival, Good Morning America, for a month and a half—until G.M.A.reclaimed its crown in late January. With Guthrie and Kotb now headed to Pyeongchang for the Winter Olympics, it’s worth wondering whether the show’s surge might help stem the years-long downward trend of Olympics viewership in traditional Nielsen ratings. And either way, as Variety’s Brian Steinbergnoted Tuesday, Today certainly has the chance to nab a few extra eyeballs as it tethers itself to what is still a blockbuster TV event.
Per Variety, NBCUniversal plans to broadcast more than 2,400 hours of Olympics coverage across its various networks and digital platforms. Guthrie, Kotb, Al Roker, Natalie Morales, Willie Geist, Craig Melvin, and Dylan Dreyer are all South Korea-bound—along with Saturday Night Live’s__Leslie Jones,__ who will reprise her role as the 2016 Rio Games’ most delightful correspondent in a more official capacity. Guthrie and Kotb have, by all accounts, handled the shake-up on their morning show with great aplomb—as has newly instated executive producer Libby Geist, who noted to Variety that the morning show’s Olympics coverage will have a pretty different vibe from the usual broadcasts.
“They are flipping their days,” Leist said, thanks to the time difference between South Korea and New York City; the morning show’s audience will see its hosts covering events unfolding in Pyeongchang at roughly 9 P.M. local time. Added Leist, “It’s a whole different vibe for the show.” And it appears that the team is more than ready for the challenge: as Steinberg noted, this will be Kotb’s fifth round covering the games and Guthrie’s third.
Kotb and Guthrie’s ratings mojo lasted long enough to prove that they had more going for them than simply viewer curiosity following Lauer’s departure. Their easy chemistry is clearly resonating with American viewers, particularly in the wake of Lauer’s ouster—and both did an exemplary job of covering Lauer developments as they came with professionalism and candor. Add in Jones, whose effusive Twitter coverage of the Olympics earned her a correspondent slot during the 2016 games, and there’s reason to be optimistic about this year’s ratings prospects.
That said, the broadcast home of the Olympics does face an uphill battle. Thanks to general viewership erosion in the Peak TV era and a diaspora spurred by audiences who are finding more and more places to watch the games beyond NBC, Olympics ratings have been trending downward for some time. The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio got staggeringly low numbers, and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi were down from the previous ceremony in Vancouver as well. NBC pointed out after the Rio Games that part of the apparent decline stemmed from viewers watching on a variety of platforms within its broadcast family—various cable networks and digital platforms owned by NBC—rather than the flagship broadcast network itself. Taking those factors into account, NBC argued, made the downturn less dramatic; streaming across its digital platforms, for instance, climbed 24 percent during the Rio Games compared to the 2012 London Olympics.
The Olympics, then, remain a broadcast ratings magnet, albeit one that grows slightly less powerful year after year. But if anything could help turn that around, it might be this NBC team.
Get Vanity Fair’s HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Laura BradleyLaura Bradley is a Hollywood writer for VanityFair.com. She was formerly an editorial assistant at Slate and lives in Brooklyn.