NEW YORK – For 487 weeks, viewers have made NBC's "Today" show (search) team of Katie Couric (search) and Matt Lauer their favorites in the morning. The steady rise of ABC's "Good Morning America" (search) is threatening that dominance.
So far this season, the "Today" ratings lead has averaged 662,000 viewers, down from almost 1.3 million last year at the same time, according to Nielsen Media Research. Five years ago, "Today" regularly won by nearly 2 million.
There have even been a few days — the Monday after Pope John Paul II died and last Tuesday's Mariah Carey concert — when the ABC team of Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer came in first.
"The program has momentum and momentum that has been building for six years," said Ben Sherwood, executive producer of "GMA" since taking over from Shelley Ross last year.
Over nine years the gap has been big and small, but 'Today' has never lost its status as the top morning show, said its spokeswoman, Lauren Kapp.
"Since when is another loss considered a success?" she said. "The strength of 'Today' speaks for itself."
"Today" has averaged just over 6 million viewers this season, "Good Morning America" 5.36 million, Nielsen said.
It would be a huge psychic blow to NBC if "Today" were eclipsed. It is NBC's most profitable show, and the primary architect of its remarkable winning streak — former executive producer Jeff Zucker — has ascended to NBC Universal Television Group president.
Andrew Tyndall, a consultant who monitors the content of network news programs, said "GMA" has picked up its pace and sharpened its focus.
All of the morning news shows are newsy and move quickly during their first half-hour, a Zucker innovation. Sherwood said he's trying to bring that philosophy to the rest of the show, even for feature-oriented segments.
"We're trying to make a program that connects with the hurried pace of most American mornings," Sherwood said. "Every choice is aimed at how our typical viewer is living — making breakfast, making lunches for school and trying to get out the door. You want to be connected with what's going on in the world and what people are talking about that day."
ABC seems to be doing fewer celebrity interviews and more taped reports, Tyndall said. Sherwood said he just tries for something that people can connect to: a segment with Hillary Duff focused on giving a fan a chance to meet her instead of a straight interview.
News anchor Robin Roberts has proven popular and will soon be given an even bigger role in the show, Sherwood said.
Many of the popular segments where "Today" blazed a trail are now a few years old: the morning concert series, the wedding planned by viewers, the "where in the world is Matt Lauer?" road trip where the host travels to a mystery location each day. It is placing high hopes on the "Live for Today" segment where participants try out dream jobs.
The addition of a third "Today" hour is a financial success but not universally popular at the show; it's also another full hour of programming to plan every day.
Couric had such an unnaturally high level of respect and popularity a few years ago that it was impossible to last, Tyndall said.
"All she's gone from is being the perfect superstar to being just really good," he said.
One factor in the "GMA" rise may simply be ABC's improving fortunes in prime time. The idea is if someone is watching ABC in the evening, the TV remains on that channel when it is turned on again the next morning.
It escaped no one's attention that ABC's victory on April 4 came the morning after "Desperate Housewives" was seen by nearly 25 million people.