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ABC's good sport

Co-anchor Robin Roberts, who came to the network from ESPN, helps the 'Good Morning America' team gain on morning leader 'Today.'

October 15, 2005|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

New York — IF "Good Morning America" co-anchor Robin Roberts needs a reminder about what's at stake in her new job, there's one staring at her every morning through the window of the show's Times Square studio.

Ever since Roberts moved from the news desk to the anchor desk in May, she's had an unobstructed view of the competition: NBC's "Today" show, playing on a giant screen hanging off a building across the street.

The sight could feel like a taunt from the top-rated show as second-place "Good Morning America" seeks to knock it off its perch. But Roberts, a college athlete-turned-sportscaster before she joined "Good Morning America," said she's not fazed by the proximity of her rivals.

"Every once in a while you'll look out and see what they're doing, but something I learned from playing sports is you don't concern yourself with the competition as much," said the 44-year-old former ESPN anchor. "I like us to compete against ourselves."

That may be, but the producers of "Good Morning America" are acutely aware of the competition -- and the fact that they've edged closer to "Today" this year than in almost a decade but still haven't managed to overtake the longtime ratings leader. This spring, ABC News executives bumped Roberts from newsreader to co-anchor along with Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer, hoping that Roberts' brand of teasing banter and her matter-of-fact, folksy tone rooted in her Mississippi upbringing would finally help push the program over the top.

The morning show's executive producer Ben Sherwood said Roberts has a "relatable" quality that was on full display during her coverage of Hurricane Katrina, which severely damaged her hometown of Pass Christian, Miss. At one point, after learning her mother and sister were safe in Biloxi, she wept on air -- a moment that triggered an outpouring of sympathy from viewers.

Becoming the No. 1 morning news show means bragging rights and, more important, big bucks for the networks. Dislodging the Katie Couric/Matt Lauer-hosted "Today" show won't be easy; while ABC has narrowed the gap between the two shows since last year, "Today" has won the largest morning audience for almost 10 years straight, a streak NBC is determined to continue. When "Good Morning America" began gaining on its rival last spring, NBC Universal Television Group President Jeff Zucker fired "Today's" executive producer and brought in a new team to run the show.

" 'Today' has tremendous advantage," said Steve Friedman, a former executive producer of "Today" and CBS' "The Early Show." "It's like Kleenex, Crest, Jell-O -- it's the brand name of morning television." And with new executives in place, he added, "they've got a new fighting spirit."

In September, "Today" averaged 622,000 more viewers than its rival, according to Nielsen Media Research, despite the return of ABC prime-time hits like "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost," which were expected to lift "Good Morning America's" ratings with their readily available stars. Still, the margin between the two shows is substantially less than it was in September 2004, when NBC was ahead by more than 1 million viewers. And last week, "Good Morning America" came within 150,000 viewers of "Today," the closest it has been since May.

Many factors affect the ebb and flow of the ratings, but network executives agree that the chemistry between the anchors is one of the most important ingredients. By all accounts, Roberts' move to the anchor desk has been received warmly by those involved -- no small feat in an industry known for its outsized egos. Quick with wry ad-libs, she has developed a joking repartee with her co-hosts that the network hopes will wear well with morning audiences.

"Robin has a comfort on air that just comes to her naturally," Gibson wrote in an e-mail. "She has fit in from the day she arrived."

But after spending two decades as a sportscaster, Roberts said it has taken her some time to adjust to her new role.

"It's not that I felt nervous here, but it was not quite in my comfort zone," she said as she sat in a production office outside the studio after a recent broadcast, having replaced her brown heels with fuzzy blue slippers.

'Triangle offense'

Shortly before 7 on a recent gray morning, Roberts and Gibson sat next to each other in the warmly lighted studio, prepping for the broadcast as a nearly empty Times Square began blinking to life through the window behind them.

A few minutes before airtime, Roberts did a promo for the New York ABC affiliate, telling the local anchor that Gibson had been chortling about the Yankees' loss the night before.

Gibson looked up, alarmed: "Now I've got 3 million Yankees fans hating me!"

"Oh well, the truth hurts, doesn't it?" Roberts replied breezily, laughing as her co-host leaned across the desk with mock menace.

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