ABC News changes its morning lineup

TV: Diane Sawyer and Charles Gibson become early birds as they're reassigned to `Good Morning America.' Network news chief says the move is designed to end a precipitous ratings slide.

January 05, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Out with the new, and in with the old.

That's the plan, as of yesterday anyway, at ABC News for reviving its troubled "Good Morning America" show.

In a major overhaul, two anchors and an executive producer were dumped yesterday to be replaced on an interim basis starting Jan. 18 by former "GMA" host Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer, of the "20/20" newsmagazine. Sawyer's return to mornings, where she worked as co-host of "CBS This Morning" from 1981 to 1984, is one of the more surprising turns taken of late by the revolving chairs at the morning show.

" `Good Morning America' has been a wonderful and treasured franchise for ABC for many years, and it has had a bond with its viewers. But, frankly, it has wandered away from its core values the last two years or so, and what we need to do is return to core values," said David Westin, president of ABC News, in explaining the shake-up during a telephone press conference.

He defined the core values as "warmth with intelligence and a sense of family on the program." Westin said that "Good Morning America" had moved so far away from those goals in the last two years that the network needed "to make a very dramatic move" to right the sinking ship. Thus, the choice of Sawyer and Gibson as transitional hosts.

This is the same Gibson who left "Good Morning America" as co-anchor only eight months ago after 11 years to be replaced by Kevin Newman. Newman will join "Nightline" as a correspondent, Westin said.

When asked yesterday about going back to the show he just left, Gibson said, "I did feel it was over [in April] and was very comfortable with that. In fact, when this possibility was first mentioned to Diane and me, we both giggled. But we then realized they were not kidding. And David Westin has a way of being persuasive."

Sawyer replaces Lisa McRee, who took over in September 1997 for Joan Lunden. McRee, who is pregnant, will return to Los Angeles to do "special projects for ABC News," according to Westin.

One of the star workhorses of "20/20," Sawyer said she will not be cutting back substantially on her work for the prime-time newsmagazine despite the killer schedule of early morning television.

"I did ask if they test around here for amphetamines," she joked when asked how she would manage both jobs.

The main thing ABC News seemed to be doing yesterday was buying time by riding on the credibility of Sawyer and Gibson until Westin can come up with a real plan to right the sinking ship that is "Good Morning America."

When asked how long she expected her morning duties as "transitional" anchor to last, Sawyer replied, "I think we're thinking in terms of a few months."

Gibson said he was on board for "as long as it takes," which suggests ABC News management has yet even to identify whom it wants to put permanently in the anchor seats.

So far this season, NBC's "Today" show has a 5.3 rating and 21 audience share in the morning competition. "Good Morning America" has a 3.3 rating, and CBS News' "This Morning" is at 3.0. Ratings for NBC and CBS are unchanged from last year, while ABC has dropped 17 percent.

As for behind-the-scenes changes, Westin said Shelley Ross, executive producer of special projects for ABC News on the West Coast, will replace Shelley Lewis as executive producer. Lewis was reassigned to other duties within the news division. Lewis will report to Phyllis McGrady, executive-in-charge of "Good Morning America."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 1/05/99

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