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Why ‘Today’ had to hurry to dump Ann Curry

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Updated: July 30, 2012 6:27AM

Ann Curry’s stint as co-host of the “Today” show lasted only one year — not enough time, Curry said, to work out the kinks.

Time isn’t a luxury NBC can afford, not when it threatens to erode one of the precious few areas where the Peacock Net can boast success.

“I’m surprised they didn’t replace her earlier,” said network news analyst Andrew Tyndall, noting the speed with which short-lived “Today” co-host Deborah Norville got the boot when ratings plummeted in 1990.

“The broadcast network has such a hard time getting audiences in prime time, the news division is what’s keeping it afloat,” Tyndall said. “Being No. 1 is really important to NBC News: No. 1 on Sunday mornings, No. 1 weekday mornings and No. 1 in nightly news, and they devote a lot of their resources to maintaining that status.”

That status — at least during weekday mornings — started slipping at an increasingly rapid clip last June when the ever-patient Curry got her shot as co-host, taking the reins from Meredith Vieira.

When Vieira signed off, the “Today” show still enjoyed a somewhat healthy ratings gap between it and its chief rival, ABC’s “Good Morning America.” The ABC show since has broken “Today’s” 16-year week-to-week winning streak as TV’s top-viewed morning program, and “Today’s” bleeding has shown no signs of letting up.

“In fairness to Ann Curry, [‘Today’] was still in the lead in adults 25-54, which is the target audience that advertisers buy early-morning TV for,” said Brad Adgate, research director at Horizon Media. But “Today” was losing ground in that key demo, too, which means NBC’s cash cow was coming dangerously close to drying up.

Morning shows historically have been big money-makers for TV networks.

“NBC is paying over a billion dollars a year for the NFL and the Olympics,” Adgate said. “An hour show in prime time costs $2.5 million to produce or even higher. You don’t have that kind of overhead with these morning shows, which can be lucrative.”

Morning news audiences grew in 2011 for the first time in seven years, according to the Pew Research Center’s annual report on the state of the news media. Some 13.1 million on average watched the three morning network news programs, up 5.4 percent from 12.4 million in 2010. “GMA” saw the most growth of the three — a fact that NBC is no doubt acutely aware of.

“With ‘GMA’ getting so close to the space the ‘Today’ show has owned for so long, that ups the ante,” said Beth Bennett, an assistant professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism who teaches broadcast news and video storytelling.

Because of “Today’s” lengthy tenure as top dog, changes in who sits on the hosting couch are big news, as evidenced by the past few days of endless speculation about Curry’s fate.

“Ann has been on the show for such a long time,” Bennett said. “To make a change that’s that big really commands attention, especially among devoted fans. I also think the way she said goodbye makes us pay attention. She was clearly very sad about it.”

A tearful Curry, 55, announced her departure during the final minutes of her shift Thursday.

“For all of you who saw me as a groundbreaker, I’m sorry I couldn’t carry the ball over the finish line but, man, I did try,” she said.

Speculation is that “Today’s” Savannah Guthrie, 40, is next in line to share hosting duties with Matt Lauer.

“She’s smart, she’s witty and she has a good television presence,” Tyndall said. “She also has the reporting chops with her legal and her White House background. She can handle the hard news as well.”

If Guthrie is the answer to “Today’s” problems, she’d better prove it fast.

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