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ABC Wakes Up to Some Serious 'Morning' Woes

Television: As ratings drop, there is talk of replacing the anchors and a producer.

May 10, 1997|JANE HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Working on "Good Morning America" these days can be like waking up to a cup of cold coffee.

Every week the Nielsen ratings come in with more bad news about the widening gap between the ABC weekday morning program and its chief rival, NBC's "Today" show. Figures released Thursday showed "Today" beating "GMA" for the 73rd week in a row, averaging about 6 million viewers a day compared to 4.3 million for "GMA" and 2.7 million for CBS' "This Morning." "GMA's" ratings are down 16% from a year ago.

Those ratings have led to rampant speculation within ABC that everyone from "Good Morning America" executive producer Marc Burstein to anchors Charles Gibson and Joan Lunden may lose their jobs. But while ABC News Chairman Roone Arledge has said that changes are needed, no decisions have been made.

"They don't know what to do," said one ABC executive with knowledge of the situation. "Roone has been very concerned about creating another situation like Deborah Norville"--referring to the ratings disaster that befell "Today" when Norville replaced Jane Pauley as anchor in 1990. "But, meanwhile, 'GMA' is drifting. They've got to move."

Network sources say that executives at Disney, ABC's parent company, are unhappy with the indecision and want to have something encouraging to tell ABC affiliates at their annual meeting in June.

That could mean announcing a new executive producer. ABC sources say the network has approached Steve Friedman, a former executive producer of "Today," about the job. Friedman declined to comment.

It could also mean a change in one or both anchors.

"We're now looking at every scenario," said one ABC News executive who, like others contacted for this story, asked not to be identified.

Gibson, 54, a longtime ABC newsman who has co-hosted "GMA" since 1987, could be moved to ABC's prime-time newsmagazine "20/20," sources say. Lunden, 49, has been hosting "GMA" since 1980, having joined the show four years earlier. In a recent appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live," she said that the three-year contract she signed with ABC last August will still pay her full salary even if she only continues the prime-time specials she does for the network's entertainment division.

One factor mitigating against radical change is: Who are the successors? Sources say that ABC anchor Forrest Sawyer, "GMA" news-reader Elizabeth Vargas and "20/20" correspondent Deborah Roberts are on the network's list of possible "GMA" hosts.

ABC declined official comment on any changes regarding the show.

Some staffers at "GMA" believe that part of the show's problems stem from the program having moved from the control of ABC Entertainment to ABC News two years ago. NBC's "Today" has been part of NBC News for 40 years.

"The news division tried to make 'GMA' more of a hard-news show, which doesn't play to its traditional strengths," one "GMA" employee said. "There are a lot of people involved, and there's been confusion about what direction we're going in."

Burstein took over as executive producer in December 1995. The following May, he brought in Vargas to do the news and unveiled a new set. But neither those changes nor the departure of Bryant Gumbel from the "Today" show has improved "GMA's" ratings picture.

Jeff Zucker, executive producer of "Today," feels some sympathy for his rivals. "I've been on the 'Today' show through difficult years, and I know what it's like to be in ABC's situation," he said. "I'm so glad [restoring "GMA"] is not my problem."

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