ABC Affils Weigh In on News Shakeup

The wait for new 'GMA' anchor team leaves some wary

When Diane Sawyer ascends to the anchor chair at ABC's World News, she will leave a hole at the news division's most pivotal franchise, Good Morning America. For network affiliates, unease about so vital a transition remains. Concerns include the timing of an announcement, the intangibles of on-camera chemistry and the fundamental format of the show.

“More [important] than timing is getting the people right,” says Stuart Kellogg, president and general manager of WAPT, the ABC affiliate in Jackson, Miss.

GMA co-anchor Robin Roberts, who hails from Pass Christian, Miss., is extremely popular with WAPT's viewers, Kellogg says. She exudes a relatability and awareness of the concerns of average Americans that are vital to morning television.

George Stephanopoulos, who has become one of the network's most prominent stars, recently emerged as a top candidate to replace Sawyer. But sources say Stephanopoulos—who anchors This Week and leads ABC's Washington coverage—has expressed concerns about protecting his hard news credibility.

An early scenario to ameliorate those concerns was to have him anchor only the first hour of GMA. But that option did not sit well with affiliates, and is now one that ABC insiders are disavowing. “Nobody thinks that's a real scenario,” says one network news executive.

An anchor rotation would also likely have rankled the GMA staff and alienated viewers. “You have to show you're all in,” says a GMA source. “The audience won't like you if you're not.”

And it no doubt would have also been an issue for Roberts, who has a window in her contract this spring, according to sources. Additionally, GMA news anchor Chris Cuomo's contract gives him an opening if he's passed over. “If you determine that George is your best person, by definition you're putting second-best on during the 8 o'clock hour,” says an ABC affiliate executive.

But the delicate issue of chemistry remains. “The transition of anchors would be of far less concern to me than whether those anchors are the right people for the job,” says Wayne Godsey, president/general manager at Kansas City affiliate KMBC.

“It's easy to be in a bubble up there in New York,” says WAPT's Kellogg. “I think [Sawyer] is the main reason Good Morning America got out of the ditch they dug themselves into with that lifestyle-light approach they tried. [She made GMA] a stronger news format. But it was also her connection.”

Stephanopoulos, Kellogg adds, “has been terrific [on This Week]. But the question is will there be that connection on such a very different show? Frankly, personality is more of a concern in the morning.”

Patti C. Smith, president and general manager at Austin's KVUE, takes lessons from NBC's smooth transition from Katie Couric to Meredith Vieira on Today

found the right person, an impeccable journalist and a terrific morning
host [in Vieira]," she says. "If NBC can do it, then so can we."

ABC executives have said the GMA announcement will not come until December.

understand that everybody would like to have an answer yesterday," says
Jeffrey Schneider, senior VP at ABC News. "But this process takes a
little bit of time. We're going to take the time to do it right."

However, multiple sources at ABC News suggest that a succession announcement could come later this month. Sawyer's last day at GMA is believed to be Dec. 11. She succeeds Charles Gibson at World News in January. And antsy affiliates are doing their best to trust, and remain patient.

“I have an incredible amount of confidence in [ABC News President] David Westin,” says KMBC's Godsey. “Look at what they've gone through, with Peter Jennings and the terrible accident in Iraq that injured [Bob Woodruff], and then the move to Charlie with Diane and the rest of the crew carrying the load in the morning. Through it all, the news division has performed very well.”