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Morning Stars

At 'Today' and 'GMA,' the Entertainment Bookers Battle It Out

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 31, 2005; Page C01


Mark Bracco is the entertainment producer for "Good Morning America." Tim Bruno has basically the same job for "Today." The two have met a couple times, at events and in clubs around town, and they were perfectly cordial. But each spends all day, every day, trying to throttle the other -- armed only with a telephone.

It can get ugly. Like it did a few weeks ago when Leonardo DiCaprio was up for grabs as a guest. He decided to weigh in on tsunami relief -- he'd just donated a huge sum and, well, he's got a movie to promote -- and he picked "Good Morning America" as the venue to talk about it. If you tuned in to the show on Jan. 5, you would have seen DiCaprio talking live to Diane Sawyer, who, to add drama to the moment, was conducting her half of the interview from Indonesia.

Mark Bracco books acts for No. 2-rated "Good Morning America," getting "closer and closer" to No. 1, he says. "I'd like to be here when it happens." (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

Over at "Today," you would have seen something a little duller: Matt Lauer, in a studio, interviewing an editor from Us Weekly and a celebrity fundraising professional.

Both shows hate getting bested like that, and they don't lick their wounds quietly. Smarting from the loss, Bruno called DiCaprio's publicist and made his disappointment loud and clear.

Emphasis on "loud."

"On a scale of one to 10, I'd call it a 9 1/2," says the publicist, Ken Sunshine, who runs a boutique public relations firm in Manhattan.

Measured in volume or invective?

"Both," Sunshine says, chuckling. "But I think we're still talking."

War is the metaphor of choice for the ongoing morning show dust-up and it's not just any war. It's trench war, circa 1914, a fight that proceeds inch by inch, segment by segment, movie star by movie star.

And lately, band by band. There are many different ways to track this blood feud, but none is better than keeping an eye on the musical acts that regularly commandeer the shows.

It's Bruno vs. Bracco at its most ferocious and for the music industry, it's a godsend. There might be hipper places out there in the broadcast ether, but they don't hand over an audience of about 5 million viewers, and they don't move the product in anything close to the same numbers.

"An artist can be buzz-worthy on MTV, but it's the morning shows that cross them into Middle America," says Chris Chambers, a publicity guy with the label BMG, who has worked with "GMA" and "Today." "It opens them up to a whole other audience."

"Today," the undisputed morning show champ for nearly a decade, launched the mini-concert idea 10 years ago and features about 50 acts annually in its Rockefeller Plaza back yard. But "GMA," the perennial No. 2, has made pop a priority. It's giving breaks to dozens of up-and-comers, such as the British R&B singer Joss Stone, and snaring marquee acts. When Destiny's Child recently reunited, the group chose to play "GMA."

Coups like that are just one of many reasons that the "Today" vs. "GMA" smackdown is getting interesting. For years, "Today" crushed all comers, thanks to the Katie-and-Matt attack, one of the greatest tag-team television couples ever. (Credit Bryant Gumbel, too. He was with the show when it pulled into first place in 1995 and for two years after that.) But the "Today" margin is shrinking.

CBS's "The Early Show," which Gumbel also hosted for a few years, runs a pretty distant third in the ratings, but has caused some of the shrinkage and it's on its way to becoming a genuine contender. It still trails "Today" by a couple million viewers, though, and isn't exactly threatening for the lead.

"GMA," meanwhile, is turning in its best performance since it lost the top spot 10 years ago. The show trailed "Today" by 830,000 viewers the week of Jan. 17, down from a 1.34 million-viewer gap during the same time last year, according to Nielsen. "Today" can boast of an undefeated streak that inspires awe in television circles, but in the span of 12 months, the show's margin of victory has gotten a lot slimmer.

Whether we're talking about a tectonic shift or an aberration depends on whom you ask. Visit the set of "Today" and you get the sense that everything is going exactly as planned. Nobody appears remotely troubled. A few blocks away, at the offices of "GMA," a team of perpetual silver medalists is beginning to see gold.

"We're getting closer and closer to Number 1, I think," Bracco says. "I'd like to be here when it happens."

Observing "GMA" and "Today" from the sidelines -- in the studio -- everyone seems weirdly unruffled. The programs are like carnivals with news breaks and the productions breeze along like tumbling routines rehearsed for years. The strange part is the mix of celebrities who trundle through, hawking stuff. Watching, you can't resist that idiotic thought that occurs whenever you see someone famous: "Omigod! You look exactly like you."

On one rainy day not long ago, the celebrity list includes Jessica Simpson, the curvy blonde with the live-on-television marriage. She's come to push an album called "ReJoyce." Before she sings, Simpson sits for an interview with her husband, Nick Lachey, fielding questions from Sawyer about tabloid reports that their marriage is in trouble. The couple sits smiling and rigid, like someone has just handed them a dessert that could give them hives.

"So, let's just start," Sawyer suggests, ready to fact-check all the innuendo. "Let's go one by one. Getting divorced?"

"Absolutely not," Simpson says.

"No," adds Lachey, for emphasis.

"Getting separated?"

Simpson: "Absolutely not."

Lachey: "Nope."

This interview, as painful as it might look to the untrained eye, is something that Simpson requested. It's not terribly convincing as damage control, but it's great television. An hour later, Simpson warbles through two songs, as her father, Joe Simpson, leans against a wall in the back of the studio, looking pleased. This is a place where his daughter can reach a swath of listeners who just aren't available anywhere else, everyone from 10-year-olds to their grandparents.

Is this going to sell albums? Joe Simpson nods and smiles. "We wouldn't come here if it didn't sell albums."

Bracco spends the morning squiring around the talent, handling questions from staffers, scrambling from place to place.

"At this point it's a little bit of traffic cop, a little bit of baby-sitting," he says, taking a quick break in a hallway. "As soon as I'm done here, I'll be trying to get verbal commitments for the summer concert series."

Bracco is a compact guy who seems as charged as a nine-volt battery. He spent five years at "Access Hollywood" before starting at "GMA" three years ago. In his struggle against Bruno, he's at a bit of a disadvantage because "Today" can always promise more viewers. To counter that, Bracco hustles. His specialty is discovering the great band or singer well before the rest of the mainstream media do, then forging relationships with management, which turns into a "get" when the act catches fire.

"With Usher, 'GMA' was one of the first shows that supported him," says BMG's Chambers. "The week before Usher's last album came out, there was all this buzz about it opening at Number 1, and we started getting calls from everyone, including 'Today.' But by then, 'GMA' was already part of our rollout plan. Mark had been talking to us months before."

The spoils here are huge. Morning shows are money machines; "GMA" brings in about $300 million a year, and as the evening newscasts and newsmagazines frantically try to slow the exodus of viewers, the crowd in the morning is actually growing. Each new rating point is cash in the bank.

Exactly what moves viewers from one morning show to another is a bit of a mystery. All anyone knows is that migrations happen in tiny increments and everything else is theory -- something about the mix of stories, the chemistry of the hosts and a dozen other factors. Michael Bass, senior executive producer for "The Early Show," thinks that the fortunes of the network have a lot to do with it, too.

" 'Desperate Housewives' has had a huge impact on 'GMA' this season," he says. Promos for "GMA" segments have been running constantly on the show, a breakout hit for ABC. "Women between the ages of 18 and 55 watch 'Desperate Housewives' in droves, and that's exactly who watches the morning shows."

Over at "Today," they have a different theory about the tightening morning show race: that it really isn't tightening. Don't look at short-term numbers, advises the show's executive producer, Tom Touchet. Take the long view. Check in a month from now. And he thinks too much of "GMA" is a knockoff of "Today."

"We take a left and they take a left; we take a right and they take a right," he says. "They can't pass us if they're following us. They can follow us. But they can't get around us."

"Today," like "GMA," unfolds without any sense of hurry, unless you count Lauer's brief sprint through a hallway ("I forgot I have to do an introduction!"). The control room looks like it could launch a satellite. Michael Keaton has swung by to pitch a new movie. He's accompanied by an immense man in a yellow sweater with a clown stitched on the front.

Bruno is sitting upstairs in a tiny room usually reserved for guests. It turns out he's a lot like Bracco: smart, focused, super-literate in pop culture. He, too, has been busy.

"I already booked one act in May," he says as the show is being taped. A five-month lead time is nothing. He booked Sting a year in advance.

"Today" has plenty of perks to offer prized acts, beyond television's biggest pre-drive-time crowd. Like the ultimate top-that enticement: commercial-free segments. Three songs, no ads. They did it for Counting Crows and for LL Cool J. There'll be more of that in the future.

Ask Bruno about his arch-nemesis and he seems a little reluctant to admit he even knows Bracco's name. Which, it turns out, is very "Today." Producers here barely acknowledge the show. Touchet says he doesn't often watch it.

"We want to be Number 1 at NBC," Touchet explains. Which is to say, he views his true competition not as another morning show but as other news programs at his own network. He wants his staff to beat other NBC shows to stories and the choice guests.

Over at "GMA," the executive producer is Ben Sherwood, an evening news veteran and a former novelist. He took over in April, instructed by his bosses to floor it to No. 1.

"The hard work of six years is paying off," he says, marking the date that Sawyer and Charlie Gibson took over as co-anchors. "The gap gets smaller and smaller. I'll let the broadcast and the numbers speak for themselves."

The numbers have looked strikingly good for ABC in recent months. A gap of just 300,000 separated the two shows one week earlier this month. And "GMA" has actually beaten "Today" on a few mornings. It helped that Sawyer had been dispatched to the regions worst hit by the tsunamis, where she filed live reports. Maybe some music helped, too. The show started "Songs for Tsunami Relief," inviting singers such as Sarah McLachlan to perform a tune live for a charity of their choosing. Bracco was pretty pleased with the response of entertainers.

"I called Wynonna Judd and asked her to fly to New York and sing two days later," Bracco says. "And she did it. She said on the show that she didn't have time to get her roots done."

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