Last week, the duo led their 10 a.m. hour of “Today” in front of a live audience gathered in NBC’s Studio 6A, a big change for a program that usually is closed off from crowds. They got to award luxury vacations to audience members who had been through hardship or emotional moments, and interact with viewers they would normally never see.
More from Variety
The experience left the two hosts feeling such a burst of energy that they are trying to make the in-house crowd a regular feature of their show. “It adds energy and juice,” says Kotb.
The hosts and their producer, Talia Parkinson-Jones, hope NBC will sometime in 2023 sign off on having a live crowd in the studio for most broadcasts, though they acknowledge the economics of doing so would require sponsorships and having some products appear on air as part of promotional deals. The network is interested in seeing such a format gain new traction, according to a person familiar with the matter. Doing so, however, may require time and fortune, particularly as media companies navigate a difficult economy.
“We would like for this to be the show,” says Parkinson-Jones of last week’s run. “We want to be with our audience every day. We want to be with our viewers every day.” Among the concepts envisioned for such a program is curating special audiences for specific guests, like seating a crowd of first-generation college students for a visit with former First Lady Michelle Obama.
The push for closer contact takes place as news programming gains new scrutiny from the media companies that produce it. With audiences for such TV staples as drama and comedy moving to streaming those formats at moments of their own choosing, TV networks are relying more heavily on news and sports to assemble the big crowds that advertisers crave and cable distributors desire. NBC News, for example, has taken up a new hour of NBC’s daytime schedule, replacing the soap opera “Days of Our Lives.”
That has led to a spate of innovations for and tweaks to some of TV’s most venerable programs. ESPN, for example, has created a spate of “alterna-casts” for sports staples like “Monday Night Football” that feature athletes like Petyon and Eli Manning talking about a game in progress as if they were at a bar. Even CBS’ “60 Minutes” has added something new this year — an end segment designed to give viewers a brief look inside the program.
Last week’s “Hoda & Jenna” marked an uptick in viewership. The five shows broadcast the week of Nov. 14 sparked an increase of 10%, or 43,000, over the year-earlier week among viewers between 25 and 54, the demographic most coveted by advertisers in news programming. All the editions of “Today” last week showed new strength among viewers in the so-called “advertiser demo.” Meanwhile, the fourth hour’s overall audience rose 9%, or by 135,000, according to data from Nielsen.
“We had high expectations, but what happened last week was magic, and we felt it,” says Bush Hager.
Kotb and Bush Hager aren’t stepping out on to entirely new terrain. NBC News tested a live audience for their show in early 2020, vowing to make it a twice-a-week event, but had to stop once the coronavirus pandemic began to spread in the U.S. Other news programs have worked to incorporate live crowds, including Chris Hayes’ “All In” on MSNBC and Megyn Kelly’s “Megyn Kelly Today.”
The travel packages awarded last week were sponsored by Expedia, part of a deal that was brokered through NBC News, which operates a division devoted to partnerships. NBC News has long been cautious about linking Kotb with advertisers because she also works as one of the co-anchors of flagship “Today,” the show that airs between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. and features hard news and newsmaker interviews. But there is room for sponsorships of various elements of news programs, and Megyn Kelly’s show also incorporated product giveaways and promotional alliances.
News executives think a live audience would lend new momentum to Kotb’s and Bush Hager’s efforts. Advertisers could weave products into a show that features the hosts’ usual banter and stories of audience members who persevere through difficulty. The fourth hour of “Today” generated approximately $33.8 million in ad sales in 2021, according to data from Kantar, compared with $42.9 million in 2020. Top sponsors of the show in recent years have included Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Novo Nordisk, Progressive Insurance, Eli Lilly and L’Oreal.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” says Bush Hager, noting that no one wants to leave behind the tone of the program as it’s being watched today. “We are still eating the same meal. We are just adding some delicious sauce.” The ultimate recipe for such a venture will have to be determined by NBC.
Best of Variety