Good Morning America, ABC NewsTribute Video
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. Â“
"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 shows." --Andrea Morabito