NBC and Matt Lauer, long-time host of the Today Show, will face a pretty unique branding conundrum by year’s end. By 2013, Lauer’s contract as the host and first-face of the most popular AM News show in America will expire, and both NBC and Lauer will have to determine how valuable the brand relationship is to their respective success.

It’s a tricky issue. The Today Show is truly a co-branded product – one part NBC peacock and one part hotshot hosts, with Matt Lauer’s personal brand currently accounting for that lion’s share there. For the past fifteen years, the benefit for both sides was fairly clear-cut. NBC lent Matt a platform and Matt imbued it with the kind of “Good Host” emotional values that successfully engage viewers and bond them to television news brands.

Lately, however, The Today Show bulwark has shown signs of a new vulnerability. In the first place, Good Morning America is pulling in fresh waves of viewers, and the net viewership sometimes surpasses even the high water mark left each day by The Today Show. In the second place, Brand Keys Customer Loyalty Engagement Index rankings reveal both Fox & Friends and Good Morning America are within striking distance of The Today Show in terms of brand equity and consumer engagement per the current 2012 rankings for Morning News Shows listed below:

1. Today (NBC)
2. Fox & Friends (FOX)
3. Good Morning America (ABC)
4. American Morning (CNN)
5. This Morning (CBS)

(CUE ORGAN MUSIC) For now, The Today Show rides out the storm, but for how long will that continue? Will substantive changes be required to save Ann and Natalie? Will those changes include replacing Mr. Lauer? Will hot guests be reluctant to appear on NBC if Matt’s not there to greet them? And with content being accessed from less-traditional sources, can Matt meaningfully make a move to another medium? And think back of poor Bryant Gumble and Katie Couric and what happened to them when they traded show equity for show business? Should Lauer leave and Ryan Seacrest take his place, will loyal viewers cry, “Where in the world is Matt Lauer?” (SFX: NBC Sting)

Tune in over the next few months to this blog and find out whether it’s the medium, the messenger, or a little bit of both that drives engagement, loyalty , and profitability around the dial.