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Good Day at 'GMA'

A year since the show’s historic ratings win over Today, anchors and ABC execs say more unscripted moments and an underdog mentality took their morning show from perennial No. 2 to the daypart’s new top franchise 4/15/2013 12:01:00 AM Eastern

TIMELINE: A Year of Upheaval

APRIL 5, 2012
Matt Lauer signs a new long-term deal to remain coanchor of Today

APRIL 19, 2012
Nielsen ratings show Good Morning America beating Today in weekly total viewers for the first time in 16 years

JUNE 11, 2012
Robin Roberts announces her MDS diagnosis and that she will be taking a medical leave from GMA to receive a bone marrow transplant

JUNE 28, 2012
Ann Curry tearfully announces her departure as Today coanchor on-air

JULY 9, 2012
GMA launches spinoff Good Afternoon America, hosted by Josh Elliott and Lara Spencer, which runs as a nine-week test

AUG. 2, 2012
Nielsen data shows GMA beating Today in the adults 25-54 demo for the first time in almost 17 years

AUG. 16, 2012
Today wins in the ratings for the show’s two weeks of broadcasts from the Summer Olympics

AUG. 30, 2012
Roberts anchors her last show before undergoing a bone marrow transplant

NOV. 30, 2012
GMA wins the November sweep for the first time in 18 years

DEC. 1, 2012

Today veteran Don Nash replaces Jim Bell as executive producer

FEB. 20, 2013
Roberts anchors her first day back; GMA posts its best ratings since November 2012

MARCH 7, 2013
Nielsen data shows GMA won its first February sweeps in total viewers in 19 years, and its first in the key 25-54 demo in 20 years

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 ABCNews.com
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.”

0415 Cover Story Closing Gap chart


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.

0415 Cover Story GMA Numbers chart

“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.”

E-mail comments to
amorabito@nbmedia.com and follow
her on Twitter: @andreamorabito

TIMELINE: A Year of Upheaval

APRIL 5, 2012
Matt Lauer signs a new long-term deal to remain coanchor of Today

APRIL 19, 2012
Nielsen ratings show Good Morning America beating Today in weekly total viewers for the first time in 16 years

JUNE 11, 2012
Robin Roberts announces her MDS diagnosis and that she will be taking a medical leave from GMA to receive a bone marrow transplant

JUNE 28, 2012
Ann Curry tearfully announces her departure as Today coanchor on-air

JULY 9, 2012
GMA launches spinoff Good Afternoon America, hosted by Josh Elliott and Lara Spencer, which runs as a nine-week test

AUG. 2, 2012
Nielsen data shows GMA beating Today in the adults 25-54 demo for the first time in almost 17 years

AUG. 16, 2012
Today wins in the ratings for the show’s two weeks of broadcasts from the Summer Olympics

AUG. 30, 2012
Roberts anchors her last show before undergoing a bone marrow transplant

NOV. 30, 2012
GMA wins the November sweep for the first time in 18 years

DEC. 1, 2012

Today veteran Don Nash replaces Jim Bell as executive producer

FEB. 20, 2013
Roberts anchors her first day back; GMA posts its best ratings since November 2012

MARCH 7, 2013
Nielsen data shows GMA won its first February sweeps in total viewers in 19 years, and its first in the key 25-54 demo in 20 years

 

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