George Stephanopoulos has accepted the Good Morning America job and will begin co-anchoring the show with Robin Roberts on Dec. 14, according to a network executive. He will continue to anchor Sunday program This Week for the time being.
The somewhat anti-climactic confirmation of what had been widely expected comes as Diane Sawyer is set to exit the program on Dec. 11. Officially, Sawyer takes over as World News anchor in January. But she plans to give herself a soft launch by anchoring the evening news program on Dec. 21 and 22 before going away for the holidays.
Chris Cuomo, the GMA news anchor, has an option in his contract and has been talking to other suitors. But a network executive said an agreement between Cuomo and ABC News is all but finalized. Cuomo will co-anchor 20/20 with Elizabeth Vargas and also take on a larger role at the network that is likely to include primetime hours, say sources. Vargas has been without a partner since John Stossel departed in September for Fox Business Network.
Additionally, Juju Chang will be the news reader at GMA, replacing Cuomo. Chang has been a correspondent at ABC News since 1998. She's reported for World News, Nightline and Good Morning America.
Stephanopoulos emerged early as the frontrunner to co-host GMA with Roberts. But his concerns about taking the job, according to sources, focused on whether or not the show could play to his strength in political news. An early pitch to do only the hard news, 7 a.m. hour of GMA was quickly dismissed, sources say. Indeed, a survey of affiliates' reactions to the idea was overwhelmingly negative.
Stephanopoulos has also been reluctant to give up This Week. But anchoring the program from Washington while also co-hosting GMA from the show's Times Square studio in New York seems untenable, given the grueling hours of morning TV. ABC News has not yet settled on Stephanopoulos' This Week replacement, but the likely candidates are Nightline co-anchor Terry Moran and senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper.
Stephanopoulos joined ABC News as an analyst in 1997 after a high-profile stint in the Clinton administration. At that time, his Washington-insider cachet was meant to be part of his appeal.
"I'm not pretending to be someone I'm not," he said during a January 1997 panel at the Television Critics Association press tour. "I was hired because I have a point of view."
When he began anchoring This Week in September 2002, his status as an erstwhile Democratic operative dogged him, and many critics (not to mention Republicans) questioned his ability to be objective. But Stephanopoulos managed to squelch that criticism and in December 2005 was named chief Washington correspondent. He has also filled in on World News and GMA, and is an occasional guest on Fox News Channel, appearing with Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly.
Asked in an e-mail exchange last month if he thought his appearances on Hannity and The O'Reilly Factor would convert some viewers of those programs who regard the mainstream media as reflexively liberal, Stephanopoulos replied, "Convert? That's setting the bar a little high. But I do hope that seeing me on O'Reilly or Hannity holding my own gives a Fox viewer a reason to tune in to This Week on Sunday morning."
Stephanopoulos, says Tom Rosenstiel, director of PEW's Project for Excellence in Journalism, "is probably the person that [ABC News President David] Westin has had the most success in turning into a substantial presence. He went from being an analyst to being a chief Washington correspondent and a show host. He went from being someone who was viewed as an activist and a political actor, and has made the transition against some expectations into becoming a journalist."
Sawyer's departure from GMA comes 10 years after she and Charles Gibson stepped in to co-anchor the ailing morning show, an assignment that was meant to be temporary. Like its NBC rival Today, GMA is the news division's cash cow, bringing in advertising revenue of $222 million for the first nine months of this year, according to TNS. With Sawyer and Gibson at the helm, the gap between GMA and Today narrowed; one day in the spring of 2005, it was down to 40,000. But lately, it has widened again, with Today besting GMA by 1.3 million viewers in November.
"It was significant that the last time Good Morning America had a crisis, the response was to bring Gibson and Sawyer back," adds Rosenstiel. "That reflected both how important the shows are and how difficult it is to find a new [host]."
Coincidentally, Dec. 11 -Sawyer's last day- will mark Today's 14th consecutive year (729 weeks) as the top-rated morning program among total viewers and the 25-54 sales demographic. (In the demo, Today has been No. 1 for 761 weeks.)
"We really do have a great story to tell," says Today Executive Producer Jim Bell. "I think framed against the backdrop of Diane leaving; it's an even better story. It's just interesting to see what she's leaving. In the most important rating of all (the demographic), they're closer to [CBS'] Early Show than the Today show. That's pretty staggering."
Today weathered its own transition in 2006, when Meredith Vieira replaced Katie Couric, who left to anchor the CBS Evening News. And while the on-air transition was relatively smooth, with Vieira in place by September in time for the new season, the move was not unaccompanied by tumult.
"There were a lot of meetings, meals and negotiations, not to mention some yelling and relentless media scrutiny," says Bell. "But in the end it was great and it was well-managed, and that's paid off."
CBS News is also in the midst of a transition in the morning. The Early Show, which has had a succession of executive producers in the last few years, will get another new EP. The network confirmed that Zev Shalev, who has been at the show for almost two years, is stepping down. According to a report in the Observer, David Friedman, son of CBS News Executive VP Paul Friedman, will be the show's new executive producer. A network spokesperson would not comment on Shalev's successor.
Sean McManus, president of CBS News and CBS Sports, announced Shalev's departure in an e-mail to staff Dec. 9. He credited Shalev, who grew the show's ratings, for turning the Early Show into a "serious contender" in the morning.
Anchor transitions, even more so than producer changes, are fraught with uncertainties. And they are particularly delicate in morning television, where chemistry is so important. Though Stephanopoulos has filled in on GMA with Roberts, the kind of rapport they will have on a full-time basis remains to be seen. Even if Stephanopoulos ushers in a harder news edge at the morning show, he'll inevitably have to tackle the lighter segments -- and appear comfortable doing them.
"I understand why the armchair quarterbacks like to perhaps over-emphasize some of the lighter side of things and maybe under-emphasize the more serious segments," says Today's Bell. "But the fact is they're all part of the show. And we're fortunate to have very skilled broadcasters who aren't afraid to get dressed up on Halloween, who aren't afraid to whip up an omelet, and who can also discuss very important health information and real estate information and consumer information. So I think it's just part of the whole game that is morning TV. You have to have that range."
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