The divide between news and entertainment may be a sacrosanct one - at least as it relates to standards and practices if not storytelling. But even a news program can use a little Hollywood stardust. To that end, ABC News has enlisted Peter Horton - actor, director, producer - as a consultant on Good Morning America.
According to Horton, he’s been consulting on the program for the last several months, having come in after the show’s makeover last December; a shakeup that had George Stephanopoulos replace Diane Sawyer as co-host of the program with Robin Roberts and Juju Chang getting the news anchor job held by Chris Cuomo.
“I think there’s real potential with George and Robin,” says Horton. “It’s an unusual partnership. The key is really establishing the basis for the show, what that means, and how you design the show around their strengths. And that’s really what we’ve been focusing on.”
Horton noted Stephanopoulos’ hard news chops and Roberts’ range as a “host.”
“It’s really been a matter of brining those strengths to the forefront,” he adds.
Horton, of course, has been part of the ABC family since his days as a star of thirtysomething. But in the last two decades, he has built a considerable oeuvre behind the camera as a producer and director on popular scripted series including Once and Again, Grey’s Anatomy and Dirty Sexy Money, all on ABC. He’s currently among the executive producers of the upcoming Fox drama Lonestar. And he has a pilot in development at ABC called The Wall, which he describes as a futuristic version of Chinatown.
It’s not unusual for news programs to enlist the expertise of those from outside the purview of news, says David Westin, President, ABC News. Westin first met Horton when Westin was running ABC Productions and Horton was embarking on a directing career.
Horton, says Westin, “happens to be a student of the morning programs and a fan of GMA.”
“So having Peter give us some notes and give us some thoughts on the appearance of the program and how it is produced, is helpful to me.”
But while any television endeavor is part theater, Westin was adamant that Horton, who overwhelmingly works with actors, was not coaching Stephanopoulos and Roberts.
“I don’t want your readers to have a sense that we’re coaching our news people the way actors are coached because that’s false,” says Westin. “We just don’t do that. This is a news program.”
With multiple hours of air time, the morning shows are the news divisions’ cash cows and increasingly what keep the lights on in a continually fracturing media landscape. Good Morning America has been a perennial No. 2 behind NBC’s Today. So far this year, GMA is averaging 4.3 million viewers compared to Today’s 5.3 million. Among news’ target demographic of 25-54 year-olds, GMA ispulling in 1.7 million viewers to Today’s 2.4 million. However, all three morning shows are down this year. GMA is off 1% in total viewers and 7% in the demo, while Today is down 4% in total viewers and 2% in the demo. CBS’ The Early Show is off 9% in total viewers and 12% in the demo, averaging 2.5 million total viewers with 1.0 million in the demo.
Horton, who is paid for his time, is working with the show’s directors on the look of the show; the set, production elements. But he’s also offering advice on the more ephemeral aspects, such as pacing and timing, which are integral to building the chemistry that is so important in morning television.
“The analogy that I use all the time is that of a basketball player,” says Horton. “You’re in the playoff game with 20 seconds and you’re down by a point. The best way to get the ball in the hoop is to take your time and to take that moment before you shoot; to know how to wait for that right moment.”
“It’s the same thing with [Stephanopoulos and Roberts],” he adds. “There’s such a tendency to rush by any performer. But if you take that beat, and take that moment, it’s truly effective. So we’re working on things along those lines. George and Robin have such tremendous skills. They’re such smart and generous people, that I think they’re going to do really well.”