NEW YORK — After 20 years with "Good Morning America," Joan Lunden said Tuesday that she will step down as co-host of ABC's morning news show in September.
Other major changes are expected soon on "Good Morning America," which has lost the ratings battle to NBC's "Today" for more than 70 consecutive weeks and has seen its audience dwindle by about 19% in the past year.
Lunden, 49, who signed a multiyear contract with ABC last August, will remain at the network to work on several prime-time projects, including the "Behind Closed Doors" specials that she has been doing for the past three years.
"After 20 years of waking up America with a smile, and having been given incredible opportunities on 'Good Morning America,' I have asked the executives of ABC to give me a chance to do something I've never done--wake up my own children with a smile, while they're still children," Lunden, the mother of three daughters, said in a news release.
No successor was immediately named. ABC sources said that Elizabeth Vargas, the news-reader on "Good Morning America," is a leading candidate to replace Lunden. She joined the show a year ago from "Today."
Charles Gibson, who has co-hosted "GMA" with Lunden since 1987, also is expected to leave soon for ABC's newsmagazine "20/20."
Sources said that "GMA" national correspondent Bill Ritter, ESPN anchor Dan Patrick (ABC owns the sports network) and ABC News correspondent Kevin Newman are on the list of possible successors to Gibson.
Lunden joined "GMA" in the fall of 1976 and was named co-host in August 1980.
In an interview, ABC News President David Westin declined to speculate on possible successors to Lunden or other changes in the show, preferring instead to praise Lunden's contribution "as the wholesome morning anchor people grew up with and raised their kids with."
Westin, however, said that "GMA" does need to be "more reflective" of changing demographics, such as the number of working women in the morning audience.
There was no word Tuesday on the fate of "GMA" executive producer Marc Burstein or other producers on the show. But Westin praised Burstein as a "very good live-TV producer."
ABC News took over the management of "GMA" from the entertainment division a year ago, and some staffers said the show has suffered from a lack of clarity about its direction since then. "GMA" was the dominant network morning show throughout much of the 1980s and into the early part of this decade.