NEW YORK — In a stopgap move to shore up the foundering "Good Morning America," ABC News on Monday named "20/20" anchors Diane Sawyer and Charles Gibson as hosts of the morning program, effective Jan. 18.
The network, which has seen many of its morning viewers flee to NBC's "Today" show in the last few years, said Sawyer and Gibson would anchor the show for an undetermined period while the network grooms a new generation of talent for the longer term.
In a conference call with reporters, Sawyer said she expected that interim period to be "a few months," but network executives declined to be more specific. Both anchors are also expected to continue at least some of their "20/20" duties, although Sawyer said she will probably cut back on travel.
Gibson previously spent 11 years in the "GMA" anchor chair, relinquishing it to Kevin Newman just last May. Sawyer, a former host of the "CBS Morning News," replaces Lisa McRee, who took over for longtime "GMA" co-host Joan Lunden in September 1997.
Newman will become a "Nightline" correspondent. McRee, who ABC said is expecting a baby in August, will return to Los Angeles, where her husband is an executive at Paramount Pictures and where she previously anchored at KABC-TV.
McRee will continue her affiliation with the network, handling special ABC News projects. However, a return to KABC, at least in the near term, seemed unlikely. Arnold Kleiner, station general manager, said that possibility "hasn't been discussed," adding that KABC is "very happy with our anchor teams." After McRee left in 1997, KABC promoted Laura Diaz and brought in anchor Michelle Tuzzee from Miami.
The unusual changes at "GMA" come as ABC has seen its morning ratings sink. The top-rated morning program during the 1993-94 season, "GMA" only drew an average 3.8 million viewers the week of Dec. 21, according to Nielsen Media Research, just ahead of perennial third-place "CBS This Morning," with 3.6 million viewers. The No. 1-ranked "Today" show nearly doubled "GMA" viewership that week, averaging an audience of 6.1 million.
ABC News President David Westin said the dramatic move is intended to bring "GMA" "back to the future." The show, he said, "has wandered away from its core values," including "warmth with intelligence and a sense of family," and he blamed ABC News management for the problems, saying the network tried to change the program without a clear vision.
Westin also cautioned that ABC isn't expecting "miracles" from the interim move, which he said will get the show "headed in the right direction" for a new generation of anchors. He said he didn't expect viewers, who traditionally have changed morning viewing habits slowly, to be alienated when yet another team of anchors eventually comes on board, and he declined to say whom ABC is eyeing for the job.
Gibson admitted he was "highly uncertain" when Westin approached him about returning to the show. "There is a time for things to end, and I felt it was time for me to leave 'GMA' " last spring, he said, but Westin "has a way of being very persuasive." Despite the daily grind, Gibson said he and Sawyer "will do this for as long as it takes."
As for Sawyer, Westin said she told him that if he really needed her, then she would do it. "Diane is being a very loyal colleague," he said, but noted that she will also have an opportunity to do some things that she can't do within the confines of "20/20." Neither anchor is being paid more, Westin said.
The program will also get new leadership: Shelley Ross, a senior producer at "20/20" who worked closely with Sawyer at the ABC newsmagazine "PrimeTime Live," will take over from Shelley Lewis as executive producer. Phyllis McGrady, the executive producer of "GMA" from 1984 to 1986 and now an ABC News vice president, was named executive in charge. Ross, calling herself a "traditionalist," said she believes one key to success is that the show "has to feel like you're putting on your comfortable slippers in the morning."
Other changes are ahead, as well: a new street-level studio in New York City's Times Square is expected to be ready around September.
Times staff writer Brian Lowry contributed to this report.
* "Good Morning America" airs Monday-Friday from 7-9 a.m. on KABC.