Two Top TV Jobs -- No Sweat for Strahan

On the set with ex-NFL star Michael Strahan, the ultimate team player who is helping give 'Live!' a new life
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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.”

Balancing Act

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 are growing.

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 off-camera.

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.

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

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