ABC Considers Taking `GMA’ to Seven Days

Jul 28, 2003  •  Post A Comment

ABC is talking seriously about saying “Good Morning America” seven days a week.
The possibility of extending the ABC News weekday morning franchise with hour-long installments on Saturday and Sunday mornings has gained steam in recent weeks within the network and with affiliates, sources familiar with those talks said. ABC declined to comment other than to acknowledge that discussion is ongoing.
“There is a big push on to do it,” a network source said.
Both sides seem to feel the potential upsides outweigh the complications.
Among the upsides: Weekend editions of “GMA” could be a forum to groom successors to weekday anchors Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson; such a show could serve as a strong lead-in to “This Week With George Stephanopoulos”; and affiliates could use the branded network news product as a tentpole around which to build additional local news programming. Under the scenario that insiders said Walt Disney Co. President Bob Iger and ABC Television Network President Alex Wallau planned to discuss as recently as last week, the Saturday “GMA” hour likely would come out of the network’s Saturday kids’ lineup. That could represent one of the challenges: The kids’ block is Disney-owned and thus presents the delicate question to Disney of where put the displaced programming.
Affiliates traded their 10 units of local ad inventory in the Saturday morning lineup in return for seven additional units of prime-time inventory under the NFL agreement signed last fall. The loss of the Disney hour on the network might mean some affiliates have to obtain other children’s programming to meet Federal Communications Commission mandates.
The Sunday “GMA” hour would come out of affiliates’ time. That might mean displacement or even loss of paid religious programming or syndicated fare, especially if the affiliates decide to expand their local news footprint.
ABC News has attempted a weekend “GMA” once before. The division launched a Sunday edition of “GMA” in 1993 and folded it at the end of the February sweeps in 1999 after a string of anchor changes. The show had never gained the desired traction with any of its constituencies. Viewers tended to choose two-to-one “CBS Sunday Morning” or NBC’s Sunday “Today” over “Sunday GMA.” “GMA Sunday” was cleared by affiliates in only 86 percent of the country. ABC News management felt it had bigger fish to fry.
The late Roone Arledge, then chairman of ABC News, was not a fan. ABC News President David Westin was still consolidating his day-to-day control of the division. He had been forced into budget-cutting mode and needed to be able to concentrate precious resources and talent on fixing weekday “GMA,” which had been in ratings and image free fall since the news division took over the show, which had traditionally been produced by the ABC Entertainment division.
A New Day
Times have changed dramatically for networks and affiliates in the four years since “GMA Sunday” was canceled.
Early morning local news is an increasingly lucrative daypart for stations. According to Nielsen Media Research data, only 41 ABC-affiliated stations currently produce local news on weekends.
With “GMA” strengthened and stabilized, albeit still running more than a million viewers behind NBC’s powerful “Today,” the prospect of weekend editions of the ABC morning show holds more appeal and offers more comfort to affiliates.
“Weekends have become a great way to extend your local brand. It takes resources, ingenuity and staffing, but to be there [on weekend mornings] is a good thing,” said an executive with a station group that emphasizes local news. A station would be more likely to expand its weekend news commitment if it can “wrap [itself] around network news product.”
Pragmatism, the potential for profit and pride are motivating factors for ABC News.
Since his division was caught flat-footed the Saturday morning the space shuttle Columbia crashed and the weeknight the United States started bombing Baghdad, Mr. Westin has redrawn lines of responsibility and mandated 24/7 staffing to assure the network and its affiliates such mistakes could not happen again.
With the new emphasis on keeping people all dressed up on weekend mornings but with nowhere for less-than-catastrophic news to go, Saturday and Sunday “GMA” would be a logical use of manpower and a logical argument.
“If they’ve got to gear up, they might as well put programming on,” said an affiliate familiar with the discussions and the investment in staff that would be required on weekend mornings.
“We like the fact that they are staffing up on Saturday and Sunday,” said one group owner, who said that a network commitment to “GMA” on Saturday and Sunday would be essential to making small-market and midmarket stations feel they could afford to expand their news efforts on weekends.
In the four years since the cancellation of “GMA Sunday,” competitive momentum has solidified for the players who stuck to weekends. Sixteen-year-old Sunday “Today” and 24-year-old “CBS Sunday Morning” are in a dead ratings heat season-to-date, with “Today” averaging 4.244 million viewers and “Sunday Morning” averaging 4.235 million. On Saturdays, where NBC established a presence in 1992, “Today” (4.673 million viewers season-to-date) is the easy winner over 6-year-old “The Saturday Early Show” (1.785 million).
Among the big unanswered questions:
* Who might produce and anchor weekend “GMA.” Phyllis McGrady, the ABC News senior VP who oversees the morning show and prime-time magazines, is said to have received at least one proposal from a veteran “World News Tonight” producer.
* When weekend “GMA” might launch. Over the course of the talks, potential target dates have ranged from this fall to first quarter 2004.
* How commercial inventory in weekend “GMA” might be split.