’FILE - In this April 21, 2016, file photo, Matt Lauer, co-host of the NBC ‘Today’ television program, appears on set in Rockefeller Plaza in New York. NBC’s ’Today’ extended its post-Matt-Lauer ratings winning streak to four consecutive weeks, but its lead over ABC’s ‘Good Morning America’ is slipping. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

Matt-Lauer-free ‘Today’ is still top-rated morning show, but NBC’s lead is shrinking

NBC’s “Today” extended its post-Matt-Lauer ratings winning streak to four consecutive weeks, but its lead over ABC’s “Good Morning America” is slipping.

The Nielsen ratings for the week of Dec. 18-22 showed NBC averaging 4.38 million viewers to ABC’s 4.33 million. “CBS This Morning” was third with 3.6 million viewers.

“Today” has finished first in the ratings each week since the sudden departure of co-anchor Lauer, who was fired by NBC on Nov. 28 for sexual misconduct with a female network employee. In the first full week without Lauer, “Today” led “Good Morning America” by 200,000 viewers. Last week, that lead was down to 52,000.

While “Today” has consistently been the most watched show among viewers in the 25-to-54 age group important to advertisers in recent years, it seldom tops “Good Morning America” in overall audience. The NBC program’s current streak of wins is its longest since August 2016.

Lauer had been “Today” co-anchor since 1997 and was the best known personality at NBC News over the last 10 years. He was long considered critical to the success of the 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. hours of “Today,” which generates around $500 million in annual ad revenue for NBCUniversal. His last few contracts paid him in excess of $20 million a year.

NBC News executives have been encouraged that viewers are still watching as “Today” fan favorite Hoda Kotb has taken Lauer’s place alongside co-anchor Savannah Guthrie. She could become the permanent replacement. With the recent spike in audience starting to subside, it may take a few months to see the true impact of Lauer’s departure.

December ratings for “Today” have been helped by NBC’s high-rated telecasts of NFL broadcasts on Sunday and Thursday nights, which boost viewership the following mornings. NBC also gets a seasonal lift from people who tune in to see the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center outside “Today’s” street level studio.

“Today” is also expected to get a ratings lift in February, when it broadcasts from Pyongchang, South Korea, as part of NBC’s coverage of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

NBC executives not authorized to discuss the matter publicly have told the Los Angeles Times that recent audience research on the morning programs showed a growing number of viewers had a negative view of Lauer even before the scandal abruptly ended his career. Ratings for “Today” in the month ahead will signal whether they really miss him or not.

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