Guilty pleasures are best over breakfast

Last week, for the first time since 1995, NBC’s Today show ratings dropped below its ABC competitor, Good Morning America. The culprit behind this coup at daybreak was none other than former Today anchor Katie Couric, now under contract at ABC. Executives capitalized on the juicy prospect of pitting the ultimate darling of daytime against her former colleagues.

The result was a fascinating arms race between networks: NBC cheekily flew Sarah Palin in from Alaska to anchor from 30 Rockefeller Center and flaunt her folksiness. Even the chronically challenged Early Show on CBS entered the ratings battle, scoring an exclusive wherein anchor and walking-conflict-of-interest Gayle King interviewed her best friend, Oprah Winfrey. 

Scrutinized widely by media reporters, this ratings battle illuminated the now-tired observation that morning newscasts don’t matter. In a conversation on CNN’s Reliable Sources, panelists scoffed when asked if NBC damaged its journalistic credibility by putting the likes of Sarah Palin on air to anchor a news show. What credibility? Morning broadcast news’ descent into entertainment and info-tainment is old news.

But I love morning news, and its triviality matters to me. I grew up a Today show kid.

Every morning, Katie Couric and Matt Lauer helped me get ready for school. Their banter was what I heard between brushing my teeth and perfecting the knot of my school tie. Ann Curry—who my dad always said was “hot”—read the news, and Al Roker delivered the weather long before he slimmed down. The Today show was the first place I followed 9/11 coverage as it unfolded. Its familiarity distinctly comforted me—at 10 years old, the Today couch was like an extension of my living room. 

I remember Katie’s colonoscopy. I remember Al’s gastric bypass surgery. I remember the time I saw my mom on TV, waving a cutesy banner that said, “My Kids’ Initials Spell H.E.L.P” in the crowd outside the studio. Watching Good Morning America on ABC seemed inconceivable; I don’t think I even knew another morning news shows existed until I was a teenager. The lineups have changed; faces have come and gone. The Meredith Vieira years were a hoot, too.

Much has been written about the intimacy that exists between evening news anchors and devoted viewers. I can’t imagine why else such an antiquated mode of staying informed would stick around in the age of 24-hour instantaneous news. We mourn strangers like Mike Wallace and Dick Clark, who died yesterday, for earning our trust and affection on beloved TV programs. The same applies to morning telecasts, but that bond is forged over cups of coffee, chatty conversation, and the fluffiest fluff pieces in the entire world.

Today, I don’t own a television. I’m not one of the pretentious people who proudly sneer, “I don’t even own a television,” but I don’t. And one of the things I miss the most is watching the Today show. I still feel an intrinsic bias against any of its competitors, and felt a sharp pang of betrayal when I read this week that Katie helped contribute to its ratings slip.

But this is the drama that makes these news magazines irresistible. Last week was a media circus in the most unapologetic sense of the word.  If you don’t have any stake in these rivalries, let a morning news show into your home. Give them your loyalty. As someone who takes his news consumption seriously, it’s a relief to embrace their silly charms.