Two Top TV Jobs -- No Sweat for StrahanOn the set with ex-NFL star Michael Strahan, the ultimate team player who is helping give 'Live!' a new life 12/10/2012 12:01:00 AM Eastern
The pairing of the 6-ft., 5-in. former New York Giants defensive end
Michael Strahan and the petite, blonde Kelly Ripa might strike one,
visually, like a unique idea for an Odd Couple revival.
But in the first three months that the pair’s on-screen compatibility has been
displayed, Live! With Kelly and Michael ratings have soared to a five-year high.
By his colleagues’ accounts, it feels like he’s had the gig for years. Indeed, by the
time he was named to replace Regis Philbin on Sept. 4, the 41-year-old Strahan
had guest-hosted 20 times and slid into Live! seemingly without it skipping a beat.
Strahan says fitting in so fast is his biggest win so far.
“They took a chance on me here, and it seems like viewers are taking a chance
and watching,” the amiable Strahan said at Live!’s New York studio, in his first indepth
interview since taking the job. “That’s been the biggest achievement, to feel
accepted in this genre that I wasn’t sure I’d be accepted in.”
Before that, Strahan first had to deal with the transition to a varied and busy bicoastal
schedule. Strahan—a semifinalist this year for induction into the NFL Hall of Fame—is
also a popular commentator for Fox Sports’ NFL pre- and postgame coverage.
When Strahan’s name emerged in the press as a front runner for the Live! job, insiders
speculated Disney/ABC would try to make a package deal with Strahan to steal him
away from Fox Sports and bring his sports broadcasting talents to ESPN. At present,
his deals with both Disney/ABC and Fox Sports continue in tandem.
“I’m under contract with Fox, so there’s nothing I can do in that regard until I don’t
have a contract with Fox,” he said, although he didn’t rule out a possible gig in Bristol
down the line. “I don’t know what the future holds.”
There’s not much time to think about it these
days. For now, Strahan said, he is happy at Fox
Sports and doesn’t mind the bicoastal run. Right
after Live! wraps on Fridays, he hops on a plane
to Los Angeles, where he tries to catch up with
friends over dinner. On Saturdays, he plays basketball
at 9 a.m. with the same group of friends
every week, then meets his trainer at the gym,
where he works out again and gets a massage.
On Saturday evenings, he and his fiancée, Hollywood
Exes costar Nicole Murphy, have dinner or
sit at home and relax with the kids. She has five
from her previous marriage to Eddie Murphy, and
Strahan has a 21-year-old daughter in college, an
18-year-old son and eight-year-old twin daughters.
Despite the six-day workweek, Strahan said he
doesn’t feel like he misses anything. “When you
have one day off a week, you really learn to appreciate
that one day.,” he said. In fact, he thinks
it might actually be harder to manage his time
with his family in the off-season, when he’s not
required to be in L.A. every weekend.
“People say, 'You’ve got to be tired, you’ve got
to be so tired,' until eventually I’m like, 'Man,
should I be tired?’” he said. “I don’t need much
sleep to function and do what I do. And the job,
I have yet to wake up one morning and go, ‘Ugh.’
I don’t get that feeling.”
It helps that, as morning TV gigs go, Strahan’s is not such a grueling one. He wakes
up around 7:30 a.m., showers, eats breakfast (egg whites with spinach and turkey,
now that he's watching his diet) and walks the two blocks from his apartment to Live!’s
Upper West Side studio. He arrives around 8:20 a.m., gives Ripa a kiss in the makeup
chair, then changes in his dressing room; the two don’t speak again until they are just
about to walk onstage at 9 a.m., to keep their signature “host chat” unscripted.
Because Live! includes little rehearsal or preparation (at least for the hosts), after the
show wraps at 10 a.m., Strahan either goes home and works out with his trainer or,
if it’s Monday, when he gets home at 3 a.m. on the red eye back from Los Angeles, he
takes a nap and watches his favorite show, Homeland, on DVR.
Other days, he goes upstairs to the Live! offices to work on the other businesses he
is involved in or just to hang out with longtime executive producer Michael Gelman
and the other producers. It’s something Strahan makes a point of doing to show he’s
part of the staff and not just someone who shows up, does the job and goes home.
“He’s such an incredible team player,” Ripa said. “I know it sounds ridiculous because
he’s an athlete and I’m using the phrase ‘team player,’ but there’s something to
that. He really knows what it means to be part of a team, part of a family.”
Strahan’s appreciation for teamwork makes him call winning the 2008 Super Bowl
with the Giants his crowning achievement as an athlete, rather than any of his individual
stats (he set the NFL record for sacks in a single season in 2001). As for his TV
legacy, Strahan is just thankful that Live! viewers have embraced him following in Philbin’s legendary footsteps.
“For a minute after I accepted the job, before I started, I’m going, ‘You fool,
do you realize what you just did? Do you realize who you’re going in after?’ At
the same time, no matter who it is, every great athlete and every great personality,
every great movie star, somebody has always had to follow them,” he said.
“Somebody has always had to come in afterward, and it’s worked out for so many
people; what makes this really any different?”
A Smooth Transition
One need only look downtown to NBC’s Today
show at Rockefeller Plaza to see what can happen
when a morning TV anchor transition really
goes awry. The fact that Live!’s ratings haven’t
fallen off in the transition from Philbin to Strahan
should not be taken for granted.
Live!’s season-to-date ratings through the week
ended Nov. 18 were up by 7% among women
25-54, the key demo for syndication; up 14%
with women 18-34; and up 9% with women
18-49, compared with the same time period
last year. The show is also posting a 20% gain
among men 25-54 and 35% in African-American
households. Although most of those percentage
gains translate to just a tenth of a ratings point,
any uptick among younger viewers is good news
in a daytime-TV landscape where very few shows
Strahan wasn’t on anyone’s initial short list—much like Ripa, a former soap star
who was a surprise pick to succeed Kathie Lee Gifford in 2001. It was more important
to Gelman that the show found someone who was approachable, natural
and brought an everyman quality to Live!’s faux husband-and-wife concept.
“I think what’s great about our show is, we were never looking for any specific
person or even an idea of a person,” Ripa said. “I just thought that he clicked, we
had a nice on-air thing. Our conversations felt very natural and not forced. When
I seem to end a sentence, he picks up right where I left off, and vice-versa.”
The new cohost not only needed to have great chemistry on-air with Ripa, but offair
with the staff. Gelman, who has been with Live! for 25 years and most of his staff
for at least 10, needed someone who would genuinely fit in with the close-knit family.
“I’m a believer that you can really feel a dysfunctional show on-air,” he said.
“People pick up on things. You see these other shows where something seems
a little off and then you find out later that there’s all this dysfunction going on
behind the scenes. It’s very important to have a happy family on camera and off
because that brings itself on camera, and then people feel it.”
Gelman vetted guest cohosts’ compatibility in front of the studio audience during
a nine-month search, so he wasn’t nervous about Strahan being the right
choice. But Strahan knows he was somewhat of a risk, with no other successful
pro athletes-turned-daytime hosts to serve as a comparison.
“They’d never had anybody come from my previous business to follow into something
like this, or for other people to see and go, ‘OK, it worked with him, so there’s
a pretty good opportunity it could work for Michael,’” Gelman said. “It wasn’t the
usual choice, and a lot of times I think it’s hard for people to deviate
from what is supposedly the obvious thing to do.”
More Than an Athlete
The fact that Live! offered such a contrast to the world of sports
and his gig as an analyst for Fox NFL Sunday is exactly what
made Strahan want the job. Athletes are expected to be macho;
Strahan hopes he can be a role model for a more well-rounded
version of the cliché.
“I’m just happy that people get a chance to see that even though
you were an athlete and you did those things, that doesn’t mean
that’s the only thing you can do,” he said. “Because there’s so many
athletes who are so talented…and hopefully this will help make
people more accepting of them doing something outside of the
box from what we’ve come to expect from athletes, which is play
your sport and when your sport is done, you’re done.”
Pro athletes adjusting to the second part of their lives is a topic
of great importance to Strahan, who said if not for his TV career, he
doesn’t know what he would be doing post-NFL. Among his halfdozen
side projects is a documentary he is helping produce, AthletesDie Twice, about NFL players who are nearing retirement age and their transition to
life on the “other side.”
“In most people’s careers, you retire in your 50s, 60s, 70s; here—20s and 30s,”
he said. “And you realize, I haven’t really lived yet. Who am I, really, when people
don’t associate you with just an athlete? This is for younger guys to look and say,
‘I need to prepare myself because this doesn’t last forever.’”
That perspective and appreciation for the work reveals a more introspective
Strahan than perhaps comes across to viewers at home—and arguably mirrors the
straight-news way Strahan and his fellow Fox NFL Sunday commentators weighed
in on the tragic murder-suicide of Kansas City
Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher Dec. 1.
In the studio at Live!, Strahan mugs for the
camera and goofs around with staff, but Ripa describes
her cohost as more shy and introverted
As the youngest of six growing up in Germany
(his father was stationed there in the U.S. Army),
Strahan didn’t strive to be the center of attention,
and only started thinking about working in
TV during his football career. He would do a bit
for Fox’s The Best Damn Sports Show Period every
Monday while he was still playing, and that’s
where he taught himself how to talk on-camera.
Becoming a full-fledged TV personality wasn’t an
easy transition for Strahan though, he said: “When
I first started at Fox Sports five years ago, after the first three weeks on the show I said to myself, ‘Man, I should have stayed with football.
I should have kept playing until they threw me out,’ because it was such an adjustment
to be natural on camera and be able to get out what you wanted to say in that short little
sound bite that we have, with somebody talking in your ear.”
As a novice, he learned from watching many of the guys he works with now at Fox
NFL Sunday—football vets Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long and Jimmy Johnson—as well
as NBC’s Cris Collinsworth and veteran sportscaster John Madden. As a daytime host,
he tries to channel the self-deprecating style of his predecessor, Philbin, and Howard
Stern. “I like people who can laugh at themselves,” Strahan said. “That’s what I try to do.”
And though his antics in the daytime job—wearing rip-away pants for a Magic
Mike segment, dressing up as Oprah or sporting a toy tiara—make him a ripe target
for teasing on Fox NFL Sunday, Strahan takes it in stride.
“I appreciate that they appreciate me having this job, and in a sense that they promote
it and they’re behind me because I think that that’s important,” he says.
Looking back from this point, Strahan’s Live! transition appears seamless, and the
ratings seem to agree. Great NFL defensive ends need to be agile, fast and intuitive;
Strahan the morning co-host/NFL commentator has those same qualities.
“You know how you say, ‘It’s a dream come true?’” he asked Ripa the first moment
he was introduced as her cohost. “Well, I truly can’t say that, because I didn’t know I
could even dream this.”
Suffice to say that, three months in, Strahan is indeed living the dream.