ABC's selection of George Stephanopoulos to replace Diane Sawyer on "Good Morning America" signals a desire by the network to toughen up the morning show during tough times.
The appointment of Stephanopoulos, the network's chief Washington and political correspondent, was announced Thursday. He'll begin on the second-place morning show on Monday, paired with current co-anchor Robin Roberts. Sawyer is becoming the "World News" anchor as Charles Gibson retires.
Even before the need for a new host came up, "Good Morning America" had been seeking to shift its pendulum more toward harder news, particularly in the show's first 45 minutes, and add reports on health, consumer and legal issues, said David Westin, ABC News president. It reflects the nation's serious mood during a time of high unemployment and two wars, he said.
"George offered me somebody who could absolutely execute that revised plan for `GMA' and also be a representative to the world, to our viewers, that we're altering the direction of our program," Westin said.
Westin said he considered, and gave screen tests to, several candidates both inside and outside ABC News. Stephanopoulos and Chris Cuomo, the show's current newsreader, both took turns as guest hosts this fall.
Cuomo is leaving "Good Morning America" to become co-host of ABC's prime-time "20/20" newsmagazine with Elizabeth Vargas, the network said. Juju Chang will replace him as newsreader.
"GMA" is an important profit center for the network, even as it runs behind NBC's "Today" show in the ratings. "Today" marked 14 years of winning each week in the ratings last week, and its victory margin of 1.5 million viewers was its largest in more than three years, according to the Nielsen Co.
Westin has long been a booster of Stephanopoulos. Twelve years ago, shortly after Westin became ABC News president, he suggested that the former Clinton administration White House aide consider a journalism career. Stephanopoulos was then a member of Sunday morning's "This Week" political roundtable. He agreed, and eventually took over as "This Week" host in 2002.
Yet when Westin first approached Stephanopoulos about "GMA," he found a reluctant, though not resistant, candidate.
"I have a great life and a great gig," Stephanopoulos said. "No question I had questions."
He said he became conviced that Westin wanted to move the show in the direction of his interests, and the news executive offered him the job two weeks ago. He also knew it was important to his boss that he accept. Negotiations were completed last weekend.
"Replacing Diane Sawyer is impossible, because she's unique," Westin said. "George brings a level of intelligence and a curiosity and warmth that rivals Diane, the attributes that I think are essential for a morning news anchor."
In making the decision, he had to keep in mind Roberts, who had essentially been considered a junior partner to Sawyer and didn't want that to continue with a new partner. She admitted to those fears, "because I started to believe what I was reading."
Now, she said, "I am totally comfortable" with the new team.
Stephanopoulos will continue as the network's chief political correspondent and report on politics for other broadcasts. He will also be Sawyer's chief substitute on "World News."
His departure creates a hole for ABC in Washington, where "This Week" was drawing critical praise and threatening NBC's "Meet the Press" in the ratings.
While he recognized that, Westin said it was important to choose a new "GMA" host by considering who was best for that particular job and not for whatever problems it might create for another show. Jake Tapper and Terry Moran are among the candidates likely to be considered for "This Week." Westin said he had no timetable for filling that job.
His serious Washington demeanor had led to questions about how Stephanopoulos, 47, would fare during the cooking segments and pop star interviews that are an inevitable part of the job for a morning show host.
To that, he said, "lighten up."
"People are going to learn a lot every morning on `Good Morning America,'" he said, "and they're going to have some fun, too."
ABC is owned by The Walt Disney Co.
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