Morning television came surprisingly and excitingly to life this week with the kind of intensity usually reserved for sweeps months. What was so special about this first week of April? I haven’t a clue, but it was fun while it lasted. The results of this sudden surge in early morning competitiveness were decidedly uneven, but as I have repeatedly stated in the past, any extra attention that any broadcast network pays to any part of its daytime schedule is a good thing for all of them.
The network that benefited the most this week was ABC. Katie Couric triumphantly returned to morning news and entertainment as guest co-host of ABC’s “Good Morning America” -- and she rocked it. Gone were those unhappy memories of a low-key Couric looking virtually imprisoned for five years as the largely desk-bound anchor of “The CBS Evening News.”
As it happens, “GMA” has been on a roll of late, with much credit due the very personable Josh Elliott and the perpetually perky Lara Spencer -- suddenly making “Today” look old, gray and disconnected by comparison (except when it presents those great concerts in Rockefeller Center). In a perfect world, Couric would join the “GMA” team, even if only one or two days a week. Failing that, one hopes her upcoming afternoon talk show doesn’t leave her too overtaxed to fill in on “GMA” whenever any of its hosts can’t be there.
As impressed as I was with Couric, and as I continue to be with “GMA,” I think it’s time to stop those unfortunate segments with Dan Abrams and Nancy Grace, who drag the whole show down whenever they go at each other (and send me right over to “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, the best of all morning programs for viewers who prefer insightful conversations about important subjects that are serious without being unnecessarily combustive). Leave the cascading unpleasantness to the ladies of “The View.”
Meanwhile, back at Couric’s former morning workplace, “Today” sought to generate much viewer interest (and blunt whatever boost Couric might bring to “GMA”) by turning to three significant personalities with proven appeal to large audiences. But the cumulative impression only served to showcase the shallowness that is currently compromising the first three hours of “Today.” (The fourth hour, presided over by Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb, remains the most reliably and consistently engaging hour of daytime television on any broadcast network.) First up was Meredith Vieira on Monday, who, like Couric on “GMA,” ought to turn up more often on “Today,” where she is sorely missed. She was there to announce that she would be taking part in NBC’s coverage of the London Olympics. (Vieira also appeared on Thursday’s show to promote “The Woman Who Wasn’t There,” an upcoming movie she produced for Investigation Discovery.)
On Tuesday, “Today” brought in Sarah Palin as a special guest co-host, but she came off more like a glorified guest without the host part. She was interviewed about the GOP presidential campaign and other matters by Matt Lauer and later inserted into one of the show’s many waste-of-time features, Today’s Professionals, in which she got to discuss Jessica Simpson’s pregnancy weight gain, the casting of Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs in a biographical movie, and other burning issues of the day with Star Jones, Donny Deutsch and Nancy Snyderman. Oh, and she also got to chat with Tori Spelling. It was all rather peculiar, to say the least.
“Today” also under-delivered on another overplayed promise of uncommon excitement with an appearance on Wednesday by Ryan Seacrest, the subject of much speculation in recent months about his possible future with “Today.” NBC did everything it could to convince viewers to tune in Wednesday for some kind of major news announcement from Seacrest and Lauer. (It had been widely speculated that Seacrest was on deck to replace Lauer until the news broke last night that Lauer has signed a new multi-year contract with the show.) As it turned out, Seacrest’s appearance didn’t warrant half the fuss; his big revelation was that he is joining the NBC family and, like Vieira, will be taking part in its coverage of the Summer Olympic Games. What an anti-climax!
Over at under-the-morning-radar CBS, former daytime superstar Oprah Winfrey, who has under-delivered somewhat spectacularly in her first year as CEO of OWN, turned up on “CBS This Morning” to have a chat with Charlie Rose and her best friend Gayle King. In a word, it was wonderful to see Winfrey back on daytime television in any capacity. If her accomplishments there were extraordinary, her absence is profound. She ought to take a shot at establishing OWN as a daytime powerhouse, something no basic cable network has been able to do. Hallmark Channel later this year is going to very aggressively stake a claim to daytime dominance with exciting new original programming. Why can’t Winfrey do the same?