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Hunt is on at ABC to replace Diane Sawyer on 'Good Morning America'

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Some network staff wonder why there seemed to be no plan in place to replace the anchor, who is taking over for Charles Gibson on the evening news broadcast.

October 21, 2009|Matea Gold

NEW YORK — Since the news broke last month that Diane Sawyer will be leaving ABC's "Good Morning America" to replace Charles Gibson on the network's flagship evening broadcast, female broadcasters such as Ashleigh Banfield and Suze Orman have eagerly volunteered to replace her.

But ABC executives are intent on finding a male anchor to pair with co-host Robin Roberts and restore the morning show's traditional male-female duo, according to multiple sources in and outside the network.

While the network has cast a wide net in its search for Sawyer's successor, it appears increasingly likely that the "GMA" co-host will be selected from within ABC's ranks, in part because contenders like CNN's Anderson Cooper are locked in long-term contracts. A short list of candidates is widely believed to include "This Week" anchor George Stephanopoulos, "World News Saturday" anchor David Muir, "GMA Weekend" co-host Bill Weir and "GMA" news anchor Chris Cuomo.

As a test run, Stephanopoulos is filling in for Sawyer for the rest of the week as executives seek to measure his chemistry with Roberts and his deftness in handling lighter fare. (Cuomo replaced Sawyer on Monday and Tuesday.)

The lack of a ready successor mystifies many ABC staffers who expressed bewilderment that executives did not have a plan in place for their most profitable program. But ABC's challenge in replacing Sawyer underscores how few superstars remain in an industry once dominated by high-wattage anchors tussling for coveted slots.

ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider declined to comment on the search process, noting that news division president David Westin said he would make a decision by the end of the year.

"The names that are out there frankly are nothing more than speculation," he said. "We haven't made any decisions. This is a deliberate process. And while it may be hard for some people to understand that deliberate process, it is a process that has served us well in the past and we think we will serve us well now."

Gibson's decision to retire triggered a scramble at "GMA," where top producers learned that Sawyer would succeed him just a day before the news went public, according to their colleagues.

Her departure could deal a huge blow to the second-place morning show, which brings in the bulk of the revenue for ABC News -- $400 million out of a total of $700 million in 2008, according to calculations by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Without Sawyer's star power behind them, producers fret that they will be unable to go head-to-head with NBC's "Today" in the race to book exclusives, the lifeblood of morning news.

Many staffers wonder why ABC hadn't already identified her successor. Sawyer's commitment to "GMA" has technically been short-term since she and Gibson joined the show in 1999 at the request of Westin, who asked them to temporarily help stabilize the program.

"What is surprising is how few choices they have, despite knowing they would have to make this choice for 10 years," said a network news veteran with close knowledge of the situation.

Schneider rejected the idea that ABC was unprepared for the change, saying the network is always working to develop a new generation of stars.

"Look, some networks obsessively work these things over years in advance and frankly, you end up with a Conan and Jay outcome," he said, referring to how NBC pushed Jay Leno to hand over "The Tonight Show" to Conan O'Brien, a move that has yet to pay off in the ratings.

The lack of a clear heir to the "GMA" throne speaks to how few of today's broadcasters command the kind of name recognition that once went hand-in-hand with a network job. That's in large part because television news does not offer the lofty platform it once did, industry veterans said. Faced with declining viewership and an explosion of other media, particularly on cable, network air time no longer translates into instant prominence.

"The era of the superstar has been fading for some time," said Av Westin, a former senior vice president of ABC News. "24/7 outlets like MSNBC and CNN and Fox have essentially subtracted from the glamour and the importance of the anchor."

Indeed, cable hosts who command a small following are now seen as viable players. ABC recently made overtures to Willie Geist, a one-time producer for Tucker Carlson who now co-hosts MSNBC's "Morning Joe," to join the network for a possible future role on "GMA," according to multiple sources. He remains under contract at MSNBC.

"I don't think television news is grooming or developing the big stars anymore," said agent Michael Glantz, who represents broadcasters such as "Today" co-host Meredith Vieira. He noted that the networks have curtailed the major salaries they used to dangle to woo correspondents. And the decline of local television stations, which long operated as farm teams for the news divisions, gives talented anchor fewer places to shine.

Glantz regularly fields calls from network talent executives asking for suggestions.

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