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December 21, 2014

What 'Good Morning America' Needs to Do to Compete With 'Today'

by Scott Harris, posted Dec 9th 2009 6:00PM
For over three decades, ABC has been greeting the nation every weekday with a hearty 'Good Morning America,' and for the past 10 years, that welcome has been offered by journalistic stalwart Diane Sawyer. But with Sawyer primed to leave the show at the end of the week, will changes to the series signal the dawn of a new era in morning television -- or a final sunset for the show's aspirations?For over three decades, ABC has been greeting the nation every weekday with a hearty 'Good Morning America,' and for the past 10 years, that welcome has been offered by journalistic stalwart Diane Sawyer. But with Sawyer primed to leave the show at the end of the week, will changes to the series signal the dawn of a new era in morning television -- or a final sunset for the show's aspirations?

As we previously reported, Sawyer and ABC announced that the news legend's final day on the show will be Friday. In her wake, political wonk George Stephanopoulos has apparently been offered Sawyer's chair -- and, according to a network source, he has accepted the position, with plans to begin co-anchoring on Dec. 14.

Sawyer's departure isn't the only big change in the offing for the long-running series. 'Good Morning America' news anchor Chris Cuomo, who many expected to be the choice as Sawyer's replacement, is rumored to be leaving the show after being passed over, with correspondent Juju Chang in line to take Cuomo's spot.

Today, the AP confirmed that Stephanopoulos will join 'GMA,' while Cuomo will co-host '20/20.'

Whether or not these changes will benefit or hurt the show remains to be seen, but the decision to go with Stephanopoulos over Cuomo indicates, if nothing else, that the network believes some fundamental changes are necessary in order to compete with arch-rival and ratings leader 'Today.' With his more hard-nosed news style, Stephanopoulos seems to fit in with what the Washington Post describes as an effort to "beef up the morning show's first hour with hard news, and to add more consumer information -- about health care and personal finance, for instance -- to the 8AM hour, which often features cooking and fashion segments."

That format would stand in contrast to the lighter and more entertainment-based style that morning shows in general, and 'Today' in particular, have cultivated over the past decade. The switch to hard news, then, can be looked at as a concession by 'Good Morning America' and ABC that 'Today' can't be beat at its own game. The saying normally goes, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em -- but in this case, ABC seems to think that counterprogramming has a better chance of both grabbing new viewers and establishing a distinct identity for 'Good Morning America.'

Assuming that these reports are accurate, we've taken a close look at 'Good Morning America' and come up with some suggestions on how they can best navigate the tricky line between entertainment and news in a way that not only brings in new fans but, just as importantly, also retains loyal viewers who might otherwise be turned off by the new direction. Here are a few they can start with:

George StephanopoulosGo all-in. One thing that worried us about the Post report is the suggestion that the show would be adding more news to the first hour, but would then go back to entertainment and fluff for the second hour. By choosing Stephanopoulos for the chair, ABC is committing to a more news-oriented series, so the network needs to do just that: commit to it. Trying to please everyone ends up pleasing nobody; ABC needs to go full force with the newsier content, or not try it at all.

Emphasize Chang's role. Judging by the hundreds of comments we've received on the changes at 'GMA,' the departure of Cuomo is going to be a very unpopular event. ABC needs to nip this in the bud by playing up Chang and letting her shine as early and as often as possible, to help people forget about Cuomo and instead appreciate the show's new cast members for who they are -- rather than worrying about who they aren't.

Make the show a destination event. Stephanopoulos brings with him not just a wealth of media experience, but something potentially far more valuable: key political contacts. 'Good Morning America' needs to play this up by having those high-ranking officials and kingmakers appear with Stephanopoulos for prominent interviews and debates. Why relegate political news to the weekend when you can make headlines every morning instead?

Play up the local angle. One of the dangers of moving to a more news-oriented approach is that news is often by its nature local, especially compared to the general-interest topics competitor 'Today' emphasizes. A mudslide in San Bernadino is news, but does it hold much interest for people on the East Coast? By bringing in local talent from ABC affiliates around the country, 'Good Morning America' can show how the news impacts not just the people in that area, but viewers around the nation. And if 'GMA' can convince people that the news is important to their lives, then, in a way, all news will become local.

Keep it all in the family. While Cuomo will be leaving the show, word is that he will be staying on the network; and the same is true, of course, for Sawyer. Meanwhile, outgoing 'World News' host Charles Gibson is about to have some free time on his hands. Why not bring these former fan favorites back to the show for occasional features or guest host spots? Not only would this attract publicity and bring in old viewers who may have turned elsewhere over the years, it also will help foster a sense of continuity for the show -- continuity that, with this current round of changes, suddenly seems sorely lacking.

What do you think? Would you watch a retooled version of 'Good Morning America'?


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