Promotion of ‘GMA’ Newsreader Roberts Among Key Changes

Apr 25, 2005  •  Post A Comment

While NBC was making big changes behind the scenes last week in an attempt to shore “Today,” its once-sacred cash cow, fast-gaining morning news competitor “Good Morning America” was wrapping up a new deal to give popular newsreader Robin Roberts a bigger role in its talent lineup.

The move to promote Ms. Roberts is one that many industry observers said could soon help power the ABC morning show into first place for the first time in more than nine years.

Ms. Roberts is expected to spend more time side by side with Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer, who were named temporary “GMA” anchors in 1999. ABC News declined to comment on the move.

When Mr. Gibson and Ms. Sawyer took the anchor positions, the show was in a ratings freefall and nearly 2 million viewers behind “Today.”

The morning news ratings race has since changed considerably. Nielsen Media Research data for the week of April 11 showed “GMA” averaged 5.42 million viewers and had closed the gap with leader “Today” to 270,000. It was “GMA’s” best competitive position since May 1996 with “Today” which averaged 5.69 million viewers the same week.

Ms. Roberts, a former ESPN sportscaster whose star has risen dramatically since joining “GMA” full-time in April 2002, was spotted dining in late March at the legendary ’21’ restaurant in New York with NBC News President Neal Shapiro, whose $14 million-a-year “Today” co-anchor Katie Couric, has seen her image shift from perky to polarizing morning star.

Ms. Couric has been the dominant “Today” personality on and off camera, but the New Yorker recently reported that she is the only news star to have a higher negative Q score than former “CBS Evening News” anchor and lightning rod Dan Rather.

That’s not good news for NBC, which is said to rake in upward of $500 million a year in revenue from “Today,” whose ensemble of Ms. Couric, Matt Lauer, weathercaster Al Roker and newsreader Ann Curry is promoted as “America’s First Family.”

With “GMA” less than 300,000 viewers shy of supplanting “Today” as the first-ranked morning news family, NBC last week named well-regarded sports and Olympics producer Jim Bell the executive producer of “Today” and MSNBC prime-time chief Phil Griffin executive in charge of “Today,” where he had spent some seven years as a producer-writer.

Heated Verbal Duels

There also was speculation late last week that Colleen Halpin, a former “Dateline NBC” producer who was supervising producer on “The Jane Pauley Show,” is destined for a senior staff position on “Today.”

Meanwhile, Tom Touchet, who had been lured from “GMA” in November 2002, was out less than a day after he was quoted denying that he was being ousted.

Mr. Bell is tight with NBC Sports and Olympics Chairman Dick Ebersol, for whom he has, among other assignments, coordinated hours of daytime Olympics coverage.

Those who have worked with Mr. Bell know him to be a smart, calm, leader who builds consensus and can handle high-maintenance talent.

Mr. Bell inherited a three-hour-a-day show that has lost 5 percent of its viewership (and 12 percent of its 25 to 54 audience) over the past five years.

He also inherits the major perception of “Today” as the source of more hard news in the morning even as it has noticeably bulked up on segments promoting sibling NBC Universal talent and projects such as “The Apprentice.”

“When you get up in the post-9/11 world, you want to know that everything’s in place. That’s an important role that morning television has taken on,” he said. Nonetheless, “Today'” is open not just to lighter segments about NBC Universal subjects but “to all things. It’s pop culture; it’s not just necessarily what’s on NBC.”

Mr. Griffin has overseen MSNBC’s prime-time lineup, which is replete with volatile personalities. He is tight with NBC Universal Television Group President Jeffrey Zucker, the former “Today” executive producer who now oversees all of the company’s TV properties, including NBC News.

Some observers of NBC News say the “Today” personnel moves look like an end run around the low-key Mr. Shapiro, who had recruited Mr. Touchet.

Ben Sherwood, an NBC News alumnus who became executive producer of “GMA” a year ago, has broken from a long tradition of heated verbal duels between the two morning shows. “GMA’s” total viewership has grown 22 percent (and its 25 to 54 audience has grown 20 percent) over the past five years and is now said to be contributing some $350 million a year in ad revenue to ABC News.

“‘Today’ has been the champ for nine years, and I have the highest respect for the team over there,” Mr. Sherwood said. “We have great challenges and opportunities.

Michael Bass, a longtime “Today” senior staffer who went to CBS News to run “The Early Show,” which was in its closest competitive position since the 1995-96 season the week ending April 15, when it averaged 2.68 million viewers.

“A time of turmoil is always good for the ones moving up,” Mr. Bass said. “It’s a great time for us because we’ve been growing.”