Good Day at 'GMA'

The scene on set at ABC’s Good Morning America on March 26 is a bit chaotic. About a dozen guests are standing between one wall and a makeshift stage where rock band OneRepublic will play. Kim Kardashian arrives for an interview, several stylists and assistants in tow. A crowd of twins, in the studio as part of a week-long segment on doppelgangers, are herded among the set pieces and cameras to be just out of the frame as anchors Robin Roberts, George Stephanopoulos, Lara Spencer, Josh Elliott and Sam Champion alternate shooting segments from the couch and desk.

Controlled chaos is not a rare state for morning shows. But the fact that GMA often welcomes audience members physically inside the studio stands in stark contrast to the behind-closed-doors drama that has plagued NBC’s Today since Ann Curry’s rocky departure last summer.

April 19 will mark one year since the day final Nielsen ratings showed Good Morning America won the week of April 9, 2012, in total viewers, snapping Today’s historic 16-year win streak. It would also turn out to be the same day Roberts was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a blood disease for which she would undergo a bone marrow transplant. Roberts’ treatment and recovery resulted in her nearly six-month absence from the show, necessitating changes at the anchor desk and spurring GMA viewers to rally around her inspiring story.

As Stephanopoulos puts it during an interview on the set, “In some ways, the win isn’t what changed the year.”

The roots of GMA’s leadership of the morning show race predate last April’s win and Roberts’ illness. In February 2011, newly installed ABC News president Ben Sherwood named James Goldston— Nightline’s top producer, who is credited with reinvigorating the late-night franchise—as senior executive producer of GMA. That spring, Goldston hired ESPN’s Josh Elliott and The Insider’s Lara Spencer to join the anchor team. By late 2011, GMA was closing the gap with Today with the addition of more pop culture news in its second hour and a deft integration of ABC’s popular reality series Dancing With the Stars.

Sherwood, who served as executive producer of Good Morning America during a competitive run from 2004-06, was not shy about his desire to dethrone the mighty NBC franchise, telling critics in January 2012: “It’s an incredible priority for us to take on, to challenge and to topple the Today show.”

“I did lay it out as a priority, but to be very honest I believe Ben came in with that priority,” says Anne Sweeney, cochairman, Disney Media Networks and president, Disney/ABC Television Group, who hired Sherwood in December 2010. “I really believe it’s about the dedication of the team, led by Ben Sherwood and James Goldston, whose sole focus in life was making GMA No. 1.”

The stakes for dominance are high, as morning shows are cash cows for news divisions. In 2012, Today posted ad revenue of $497.3 million for its 7-9 a.m. hours, according to Kantar Media, while GMA took in $318.5 million. Because the ratings upheaval largely happened prior to the 2012 upfront, the true financial impact of the last year has yet to be felt.

By March of last year, Goldston had been bumped up to a senior executive role and Tom Cibrowski, a 10-year veteran of GMA, was made senior executive producer. In the first quarter of 2012, the gap between Today and GMA was 456,000 total viewers and 388,000 in adults 25-54, the smallest in more than six years.

“It was that surging, that growth, that gaining ground that created the conditions that led to changes elsewhere and to our momentum,” Sherwood says.

Those changes elsewhere, of course, were the anchor tumult at Today. While it seemed likely Matt Lauer might bolt at the end of his contract, his re-signing last April paved the way for Ann Curry’s well-documented ouster, Lauer’s reputation taking a subsequent beating in the press and Today shedding approximately 15% of its audience in the process.

Producing Results

Because GMA had long been a competitive second place, it had been preparing itself for an inevitable changing of the guard, waiting for Today to make a misstep they could take advantage of. “We worked a really long time as the No. 2 program to keep up the pressure, to be ready,” Cibrowski says.

During the 8 a.m. hour, GMA started to devote much more time to lifestyle stories with new segments like Spencer’s “Pop News” headlines, the “GMA Heat Index” and “Play of the Day,” which highlights viral videos. Producers and anchors say they take their cues from the audience and what programs they are watching, including heavy use of Dancing With the Stars, which is hugely popular with the older female viewers who watch morning television.

“We’re trying to jettison features and do more of the topics that are on people’s minds that morning,” says Cibrowski. “That doesn’t mean we don’t love a good feature, but I think we’re pushing those later in the show as much as possible.”

GMA’s rivals say it has won in the mornings by going tabloid, though they are not the only ones softening. “It’s more tabloidy, but it’s not as though Today doesn’t have its share of tabloid schlock too,” Newsday TV critic Verne Gay wrote recently.

“‘Tabloid’ is a tough thing to say these days, because the line between entertainment and news has been blurred,” says Bill Carroll, VP/director of programming at Katz Television Group. “I think [GMA] has become much more lifestyle.”

ABC News execs firmly deny their show is lighter than the competition, saying its anchors are able to do the entire range. “I totally disagree with the characterization,” Sherwood says. “I think that it is true that Good Morning America has a lot more fun in the morning, in addition to chasing all the biggest and most urgent stories.”

To portray a feeling of fun banter, Cibrowski says while the show in the past was up against much stricter time constraints, he’s now letting the program breathe more in the latter 90 minutes, and it’s less scripted to allow the anchors to loosen up more. If a video clip or feature is run, the anchors then spend a minute or so sharing off-the-cuff impressions.

“What I like about it is there’s more room to play at the joints,” Stephanopoulos says. “It’s more loosely produced, so we can just have natural reactions to the stories.”

Roberts, the longest-serving of GMA’s current anchors, says it’s also a function of the group being so compatible. “I’ve never spent so much time with people that I work with away from the studio,” she says, noting it’s not unusual for her to get breakfast with Elliott after the show or have Spencer stop by for a glass of wine at her Connecticut home. “And I think people pick up on it, because you get to know people better like that.”

Robin’s Journey

There is no doubt viewers have gotten to know Roberts better over the past year. Though she was gone for six months, her presence remained through #TeamRobin signs scattered throughout GMA’s studio—on a camera boom, on the door to the greenroom, on staff members’ desks—a fitting reminder of how integral Roberts is to the show and how important the net’s treatment of her absence was to maintaining GMA’s newfound success.

Roberts says she’s proud of how her illness was handled on the show and that in the familial atmosphere that is morning television, not being honest with viewers who expect to share in anchors’ personal issues was never an option.

“I really don’t think that I had much of a choice,” Roberts says. “It’s not like you can disappear from a show that you’ve been on for more than a decade. I knew that my medical leave was going to be lengthy, and we wanted to take control of the story instead of other people writing about it and speculating.”

Throughout her absence, Roberts remained a part of the GMA broadcast. Stephanopoulos said hello to her at the top of the show every morning. GMA ran stories on BeTheMatch, a bone marrow registry. Updates on the coanchor’s health were regularly made on the program, and she kept a blog for detailing her recovery.

“It’s because [Roberts] was so generous, because she was so open, because she wanted the world to understand this, that so many people have now signed up to be bone marrow donors,” Sweeney says. “I think that generosity resonated in a way at GMA, at ABC and throughout the Walt Disney Co.—it’s inescapable. We really pulled together as a family. And I think our viewers felt that.”

With Curry being unceremoniously shown the door at Today a few months prior, it was even more important to keep GMA a happy family during Roberts’ leave. A plan was put in place for ABC News journalists Elizabeth Vargas and Amy Robach to share the substitute anchoring duties, alternating every week. In addition to taking the focus off one individual—who could be credited or blamed for fluctuating ratings—and keeping the focus on the group, the strategy avoided the perception that someone was waiting in the wings to take over the chair permanently, a burden that befell Today’s Savannah Guthrie. It also played into GMA’s ensemble approach, part of the show’s DNA since the early days of David Hartman and Joan Lunden.

“They’ve been pretty conscious of not having a dual-anchor situation exclusively,” says Katz Television’s Carroll. “They have a broader number of folks who are part of their normal group, which then allows for a lot more flexibility and certainly allowed for their being to deal with Robin Roberts’ health issues.”

It also paved the way for big personalities like Oprah Winfrey and Stephen Colbert to fill in as special guests, drawing additional attention to the show. ABC News anchors Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters all volunteered to sit at the desk (Couric had coanchored the week before GMA snapped the win streak last April), though with Roberts returning earlier than expected in February, some contingency plans were not needed.

“We got Robin back a lot faster than we ever imagined. We had a much broader plan and longer plan for all the people at ABC News, including those huge names to participate,” Cibrowski says. “There were a lot of big plans put in place to make sure the show didn’t miss a beat because when we got Robin back we wanted to at least try to be where we left off, which no one ever thought we would.”

GMA also had to toe a careful line, with some critics arguing the show was exploiting Roberts’ health for ratings gains. On Roberts’ first day back at GMA, the Tampa Bay Times’ Eric Deggans questioned whether the hype around her return was too much, writing “amid the celebration there is no denying that her health struggle has also drawn tremendous attention to Good Morning America at a time when the show is fighting for every ratings point with former longtime ratings champ, NBC’s Today show.”

Cibrowski says the show always followed the lead of Roberts, who was passionate about using her illness as a teachable moment for others. “We always spend a lot of time thinking through our decisions, thinking through what this might mean for the viewers and how they might interpret something,” Cibrowski says, pointing to the bone marrow donor response and ABC News’ recent Peabody Award for its “Robin’s Journey” series as proof they were doing something right.

“To say that it was a motivating factor [for tune-in] is sort of to put it in the wrong perspective,” Carroll says. “She’s always had a following. When someone has a challenge, the following is much stronger. And because thankfully it has been a positive transition…I think it all works in their favor.”

An Unending Race

Executives associated with GMA are fond of saying they still approach every morning like they are half a million viewers behind. While they have been comfortably winning every week in total viewers since last summer, the 25-54 demo remains extremely close, with only 4,000 viewers separating it and Today for the week of March 25.

“My message to them repeatedly is when you knock the champs down who’ve been champs for 16-17 years, they get back up and they throw even tougher punches,” Sherwood says.

The fiercely competitive executive says GMA still has a ways to go before they feel they have accomplished their goals. He wants to win the May sweeps. He wants to win a full television season. While Today execs admit the show got complacent with its perch atop the ratings, GMA staffers say the same fate won’t befall them.

“I think if you spend a long time at No. 2, you build those genes, the DNA becomes part of your structure that you’ll never lose, you’ll never stop being scrappy, you’ll never stop looking at your show as coming from behind,” Cibrowski says.

With Today regaining some ground in the key demo in recent months and Lauer’s long-term future at Today a subject of speculation, Cibrowski adds, “we’re still ready for even more change on the horizon.”

While GMA’s No. 1 status is beginning to have positive effects in bookings and revenue, perhaps a simpler measure of its success can be seen in popular culture. Roberts recalls a crew member telling her about GMA being mentioned on the BET show The Game—in the staffer’s mind, a symbol the ABC show had arrived.

“When they used to, on popular shows, refer to in the script about the Today show,” Roberts says, “now they mention Good Morning America.”

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