The best show doesn't always win the a.m. race.

By Ken Parish Perkins

Those of us who watch morning television do so religiously and painlessly for the simple fact that you can spend an hour or two with Today or The Early Show or Good Morning America and never actually watch it, as though it's radio or that houseguest you hear and see but have the luxury of ignoring. Stories whiz by like horses in full gallop; the pert hosts, weather forecaster, and news reader chuckle, chat, and giggle; and all the while, you're dressing or eating or eating while dressing. The priority isn't to get information as much as it is to merely get on with your day with some background noise.

While the lives of others are being reported on each morning on your tube, yours is happening at that moment in time, which often provides a kind of intriguing blend of reality and wish fulfillment. That's why morning television shows have the most loyal audiences of any daytime programming, although loyalty here is used loosely. You tune in and out as you please, you're under no pressure, and, most of all, there's really no compelling reason to hear a different set of pert hosts, weather forecasters, and news readers chuckling, chatting, and giggling. So you stay put.

Once a show's in a solid ratings lead, as NBC's Today has enjoyed for a decade now, it's difficult for the needle to move. What it takes is a big-time screwup, though at this moment, I can't even fathom what that would be. Today has survived losing Jane Pauley and Bryant Gumbel and appears to have weathered the Katie Couric defection to the "serious" stuff on CBS Evening News.

CBS's The Early Show fell long ago and might never get up, but for a while, ABC's Good Morning America appeared within striking distance of Today. Shortly before Couric left, GMA had closed the viewership gap, with fewer than half a million separating them. With hippie mother hen Meredith Vieira now settling in with her passive-aggressive cohost Matt Lauer, Today has since regained its morale and reclaimed its momentum, even though their lead hovers within the 700,000-viewer ballpark, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Today has been on top so long that having to fend off GMA is something of an indignity, which is interesting, considering that GMA is actually the better show. It has been for a while, but never more so than lately, since the exclusion of Charles Gibson, who sitting or standing or talking beside cohosts Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts often looked like one of those goofy-looking cardboard cutouts. With Gibson off saving us all on ABC's World News Tonight, Sawyer and Roberts (the former sportscaster from ESPN) have become television's most delicious tandem since Alice and Ralph Kramden.