News twist to make 'Morning' better

ABC will return to its old formula next week to rescue show inera of tight budgets and more competition.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Next Monday, ABC's proven prime-time news star Diane Sawyer will appear on the network's morning horizon.

Critics are calling the move both a bold and desperate attempt to revive "Good Morning America's" steady plummet from viewers' favor. In ratings released Thursday, "Good Morning America" fell to third place behind CBS's long-struggling "This Morning" for the first time in 22 years.

Ms. Sawyer and Charles Gibson, who will return to the show after leaving just last spring, now have the difficult task of restoring credibility to a program that has steadily lost its news edge and sense of direction, along with its viewers. "Good Morning America" has lost 15 percent of its viewing households since last season.

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The pair's challenge is enhanced by the pressures facing all the broadcast networks, from the proliferation of consumer choices - including cable, radio, and the Internet - to the steady drop in network budgets for serious newsgathering. The old broadcast giants, in essence, are trying to reinvent themselves to hold onto as many viewers as they can in the face of these challenges.

Add into that mix the fact that both Sawyer and Mr. Gibson may only stay a few months, instead of the few years usually needed to woo a regular morning audience, and media critics are skeptical.

"That's not a solution," says The New Yorker's Ken Auletta of ABC's decision to bring in its big stars. "That's putting your finger in the dike."

The right mix

The morning news shows are hybrids that have long depended on a mix of geniality, hard-nosed news interviews, and entertaining filler - from recipes to home repair to consumer tips.

But the most important ingredients, by far, are the anchors who hold the show together. "When you wake up in the morning, you don't want to be greeted by sandpaper, you want congenial," says Mr. Auletta. "Sam Donaldson would be an absolute disaster in the morning, a blow torch."

At NBC's "Today," Katie Couric and Matt Lauer's affability and spontaneity have helped the show become the nation's morning dynamo, garnering more viewers in the last year than its two competitors combined have captured.

"I guess it comes down to the personalities on TV. I think Katie Couric is just adorable," says Meghan Scancarella, sales manager for Sagamore Resorts in New York. Like an estimated 5 million Americans, Ms. Scancarella starts her morning by turning on "Today." She enjoys the mix of local and national news, and the weather. She's occasionally watched the other morning news shows, but hasn't sensed that "something nice" she finds in the NBC anchors.

She also says ABC's decision to move Sawyer to the morning won't prompt her to change the channel.

But many people are expected to tune in, even if it's just to satisfy curiosity. That's what ABC News president David Westin is counting on, at least initially, to jump-start the show. In the long term, he says he's hoping to create a new program "with the intelligence and sophistication our viewers require."

Losing the news

Critics have panned "Good Morning America" in its latest incarnation for having no clear direction, except for moving away from what little hard-news edge it once had. Since Gibson and Joan Lunden left last year, the new anchors have been chided for being lightweight, awkward, and overly perky. Mr. Westin readily shoulders some of the blame for the show's steady decline.

While "Today" seems to be the main beneficiary of "Good Morning America's" problems, CBS's "This Morning" has slowly but steadily been making headway in the ratings. Executive producer Al Berman credits the improving chemistry between the anchors, as well as a more serious commitment to hard news.

"Our hard news has gotten much, much better," says Mr. Berman. "You'll see four or five of our major correspondents each morning talking about what's coming up, what the news of the world is going to be, from around the world."

That hard-news factor is also a main reason critics say NBC's "Today" has managed to become so successful. Ms. Couric can be cute, but she can also ask tough, to-the-point questions.

As the producers of both CBS's "This Morning" and ABC's "Good Morning America" struggle to find that perfect morning chemistry, Scancarella has another theory she believes may dictate which morning show Americans decide to tune in.

"You end up watching what had been on the television the night before, she says. "If you ended up watching something on Channel 4, NBC, your TV was automatically tuned to that when you turn it on - so that's what you watch."

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