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Good Morning America

The sun is certainly shining brightly at ABC’s ‘Good Morning
America’ these days. After 16 years as No. 2, ‘GMA’ finds itself
in an unfamiliar spot: as the country’s top-rated morning
show. In a way, ‘GMA’ has always been the scrappy underdog. When
ABC first decided to enter the lucrative morning TV business in 1975,
NBC’s Today had already been on the air—and dominant—for more than
20 years. “The Today show had been so very strong that I don’t remember
people being enormously concerned,” says Barbara Walters, who anchored
the rival NBC show at the time GMA launched.

But after a strong run in the ratings in the 1980s, GMA fell to second place,
where it stayed until finally breaking Today’s 16-year weekly win streak in
April. As of October, GMA was consistently winning the advertiser-coveted
adults 25-54 demographic with a family of anchors including Robin Roberts,
George Stephanopoulos, Josh
Elliott, Lara Spencer and Sam
Champion—who, frankly,
look like they’re having more
fun than the competition.

It has been a nearly 40-
year journey since GMA first
launched in November 1975.
ABC’s first attempt to enter
morning television, a show
called AM America, failed after
10 months.

Good Morning America
launched as part of ABC’s entertainment
division, and its first host, David Hartman, was
not a newsman, but a former
television actor. For years the set did not have a news desk, which Hartman
felt subtly stood between the viewer and host; he preferred to deliver the
news from a couch in a conversational tone. “The idea was to make the ambiance
comfortable,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that the content of what we
did was less serious and less informative. You can have terrific content even
though it’s presented in a non-newsy way.”

The style was deliberate—while Today had its plaza with the urban backdrop,
GMA instead invited viewers into its version of a Midwestern living room, complete
with blazing fireplace. Not until 1999 would the show move to its current
windowed studio in Times Square, where a live audience could gather outside.

“I think from the beginning GMA sought to be a more approachable, populist
program,” says Phyllis McGrady, who served in various roles on the
program from 1977 to 2007, including executive producer. “The name said it
all. The show was more informal and pushed to give the audience news and
information that they could use in their everyday lives.”

Within a few years, the premise caught on with viewers. By the early 1980s,
GMA was winning the mornings with anchors Hartman and Joan Lunden
and its cast of “family members” stopping by the set, like Julia Child, Erma
Bombeck, consumer reporter John Stossel, legal editor Arthur Miller and Ron
Reagan Jr. The ratings drove tens of millions in revenue for ABC in 1985.

“We were beginning to see the financial impact a successful morning show
could deliver,” McGrady says. “And we pushed the
boundaries in doing live originations from around
the world.”

That decade GMA began taking viewers across the
globe, originating from the 1984 Winter Olympics in
Sarajevo and the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
The show traveled to Russia and Africa, and crossed
the Atlantic on the QEII.

But in the 1990s, GMA began to slip to an ascendant Today. GMA, which
didn’t switch to ABC’s news division until 1995, was slow to adapt to the
24-hour news cycle perpetuated by the advent of cable news.

“Nobody at Good Morning America had realized that we were now in a 24/7
news world,” says Shelley Ross, the show’s executive producer from 1999 to
2004. By late 1995, GMA lost its lead to Today and wouldn’t win a single week in
the ratings for 16 years. Lunden left in 1997, and her cohost, Charlie Gibson, followed
the next year. The new anchor pairing of Kevin Newman and Lisa McRee
didn’t prove a ratings draw, and uninterested viewers changed the channel.

For one week in December 1998, right before Ross brought Gibson back, GMA
even fell to third place in the ratings, behind perennial No. 3 CBS This Morning.
“I just thought, ‘Well, at least we got that headline out of the way,’” Ross says.

“The show was hemorrhaging and needed emergency attention immediately,
” adds McGrady, executive-in-charge of GMA at the time. “The return
of Charlie Gibson to GMA, partnered with Diane Sawyer, sent a message loud
and clear: This was a powerful team that could demand, and get, serious support
from ABC News and all of its bureaus—a struggle for all morning shows
when vying with their evening news operations for coverage and support.”

Under Ross, GMA began running more updated reports, set up a new standard
operating procedure for sharing news with its affiliates and transitioned
its booking staff from entertainment to news to add competitiveness for stories.

The popularity of Gibson and Sawyer never beat the Matt Lauer-Katie Couric
years at Today, but it made GMA a competitive No. 2, where it stayed through
the transition of Roberts and Stephanopoulos, until last spring.

Then, by capitalizing on Today’s bumpy anchor transition from Meredith Vieira
to Ann Curry and hyper-focusing on the stories viewers want to watch, GMA
earned its weekly viewer win in April. By late summer, even after Savannah
Guthrie replaced Curry on Today, the weekly win had become a trend. In a
daypart where cohost chemistry is paramount, GMA has succeeded with an
eclectic group of personalities that is greater than any one star anchor and a
cast that seems to like each other on- and off-camera.

“They are the reason newsmakers from pop icons to political leaders come
to GMA to break news, and why viewers have made GMA the No. 1 morning
show in America,” says Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney Media Networks
and president of Disney/ABC Television Group. “It’s gratifying to see the recognition
and ratings they’re getting these days. They have definitely earned it.”

Even with Roberts out on medical leave to treat myelodysplastic syndrome—
she received a bone marrow transplant in September—GMA has kept her
on the show with frequent video and blog updates. And viewers have rallied
around Roberts’ inspirational cause, helping keep the show tops in the ratings.

How long GMA’s dominance will last is unclear. But anchors and producers
agree the close competition with Today only serves to make each show better
and benefits the morning viewer, no matter who is in first place.

“They’re both stable shows and they will never go off the air,” Walters
says. “As long as there’s television, the last shows to go will be the morning