The Nielsen Co. said Monday that ABC's "Good Morning America" beat NBC's morning show last week by a razor-thin margin of 13,000 viewers -- and ABC owes Tim Tebow a hearty thank you.
The "Today" show had won 852 consecutive weeks in the ratings, a streak that began in December 1995 when Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric were the chief anchors.
The streak was a huge point of pride at NBC as the rest of the network declined. Morning shows are also an important revenue source, and a changing of the guard could have significant financial repercussions. The "Today" show earned an estimated $484 million in revenue in 2011, according to Kantar Media, more than "GMA" ($298 million) and CBS' morning show ($156 million) combined.
NBC this month signed "Today" co-host Matt Lauer to a contract extension that reportedly makes him the highest-paid on-air talent in television news. Lauer, however, was on vacation last week. David Gregory and Carl Quintanilla subbed for him
"Good Morning America" averaged 5.147 million viewers for the week, to the "Today" show's 5.134 million, Nielsen said in its fast national estimate. ABC was cautious in its response because the final ratings aren't due until Thursday and, occasionally, the numbers shift as Nielsen looks for conflicts in local markets.
Co-host George Stephanopoulos tweeted some celebratory remarks, however.
On Twitter, he thanked "GMA" viewers "for giving us a week we'll never forget," adding, "What a milestone!"
"Today" actually won in the ratings three of the five mornings last week. But "Good Morning America" won on Wednesday, when bounced "Dancing With the Stars" contestant Sherri Shepherd was featured, and on Friday, when co-host Robin Roberts traveled to Jacksonville to interview football star Tebow and his mother.
"GMA" beat "Today" by 330,000 viewers on Friday, Nielsen said. The week before, "Today" won on Friday by a margin of 15,000 viewers, a swing that made the difference between winning and losing for the week.
"'Today's' 852-week winning streak had taken on a life of its own and as odd as it is to see it end, we should acknowledge just how remarkable it has been," said Jim Bell, executive producer of the NBC morning show. "So as we tip our caps to the team at `Good Morning America,' we can take also take a bow ourselves and recognize the work done by countless staffers for so long. It is not an overstatement to call it one of the most incredible achievements in television history, one that is not likely to ever happen again."
NBC noted that "Today" still won by 254,000 viewers among 25- to 54-year-olds, the group that its ad sales are based upon. In that demographic, the "Today" show has won for 884 consecutive weeks.
ABC News President Ben Sherwood, a former executive producer at "Good Morning America" in the early 2000s, has made winning in the morning a top priority. It has emphasized a lighter, breezier broadcast, particularly in its second hour, with the team of Stephanopoulos, Roberts, Sam Champion, Josh Elliott and Lara Spencer.
Sensing an opportunity, ABC brought Couric in two weeks ago to sub for the vacationing Roberts. But NBC countered by bringing Sarah Palin in as a one-day "guest host," and the former Alaska governor's popularity helped repel the Couric challenge.
ABC shouldn't count on a long winning streak. With NBC telecasting the London Olympics and "Dancing With the Stars" going on hiatus after next month, "Today" is expected to dominate this summer.
But a big psychological barrier has been broken.