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Morning and Syndication Talent Trading Places

Live with Kelly and Michael’s Michael Strahan is moving to ABC’s Good Morning America. Access Hollywood’s Billy Bush is moving from Los Angeles to New York to join NBC’s Today show. Today’ s Natalie Morales is headed to Los Angeles to take over Bush’s job, while remaining a West Coast correspondent for Today. Why all the sudden swaps?

Most of it is timing. ABC’s Strahan announcement broke on April 19, and Bush’s jump to Today, which had been rumored for months, was finally confirmed on April 26. Morales had wanted to move to a warmer clime, so heading west made sense for her and her family.

But speaking of heat, another part of it is the ever-present competition in the space. The moves come at a time when the ratings rivalry between Good Morning America and Today is fierce, especially to gain the demographic win among adults 25-54, in which Today has pulled ahead. Recruiting new talent that appeals to younger women is seen as key to accomplishing that.

Strahan had been groomed by ABC since he joined Good Morning America two days a week in 2014. Prior to that, he caught the attention of ABC brass when he was handpicked by Live executive producer Michael Gelman, after some 20 on-air auditions, to succeed Regis Philbin as Kelly Ripa’s cohost. The ratings rose with the addition of Strahan and never fell back.

Morning Glories

Network morning shows are important profit centers, earning some $400 million annually in revenue, according to Kantar Media. Having hosts that can attract audiences and keep them there is critically important to these programs.

“Strahan is just a very engaging personality and that’s grown over the time he’s been on Live,” says Bill Carroll, senior VP, director of content strategy, Katz Television Group.

“With Michael, it’s all about his personality. No one thinks he’s a news reader,” says a syndicated TV producer who preferred to remain nameless. “Women dig him and that’s been tested. Syndication is a place for us to see the attraction of women to these personalities.”

While ABC groomed and then wooed Strahan to GMA, Billy Bush’s move to Today was much more about Bush’s personal ambition. Several sources said Bush has been ready to leave entertainment news for a while and wanted the broader exposure being on a network morning newscast would bring.

Rumors that Bush was leaving Access Hollywood started circulating last fall, with NBC firmly denying them. But with his move from Los Angeles to New York already in progress, it was hard to finally keep it from leaking.

Bush brings with him some specific skills that Today could use, especially in the third hour that the network is interested in bolstering. Bush is an old hand now at interviewing celebrities, having appeared on many red carpets, and he’s cohosted Access Hollywood Live with Kit Hoover for several years now, making him adept at live television. He’s also been covering the Olympics as Access Hollywood’s lead anchor for years now, and is expected to be on hand in Rio de Janeiro as part of Today’s team.

“People take for granted how easy it is to replace a host in the entertainment news genre,” says the syndicated TV producer. “But if you look at the research, there are only three people that audiences really know: Extra’s Mario Lopez, Entertainment Tonight’s Nancy O’Dell and Billy Bush. To get someone to replace him is going to be really tough.”

With that being the case, Morales’ willingness to move to Los Angeles to take the reins at Access Hollywood while still working for Today and Dateline worked out well for everyone.

What all three have in common is that they appeal to women, are used to doing live TV and are comfortable chatting with celebrities. All of those skills make sense for hosts working in the later portions of the network morning shows, which is far lighter on news and heavier on lifestyle and entertainment segments.

Says Carroll: “The audience doesn’t perceive a difference between network and syndication. These are just personalities they watch on television.”