George Stephanopoulos and Chris Cuomo are contenders to replace Diane Sawyer on 'GMA'

George Stephanopoulos tried out on
George Stephanopoulos tried out on "Good Morning America" this week. (Ap Photo - Abc, Steve Fenn))
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 24, 2009

One helped elect a president, the other grew up as the son of a governor.

Now George Stephanopoulos and Chris Cuomo are engaged in a very different kind of contest, for one of the most coveted prizes in network television.

Stephanopoulos has an edge in the competition to succeed Diane Sawyer at "Good Morning America" when she leaves to become ABC's evening news anchor, several well-placed sources at the network say. As host of "This Week" and the newly anointed backup anchor of "World News," the former Clinton White House aide is a bigger name, represents a greater change and has long been groomed for stardom by ABC News President David Westin.

But everyone at the network -- Stephanopoulos included -- recognizes that he is less adept at the lighter fare demanded by morning television, a conclusion reinforced by his stint filling in for Sawyer the last three days. For a hard-news political junkie, attempting that transition could wind up damaging his brand if the move fizzles.

Cuomo, now the news anchor at "GMA," is already comfortable as part of a morning ensemble, has proved himself in the field -- as on a trip to Afghanistan this month -- and has shown good on-air chemistry with the current co-host, Robin Roberts. The son of former New York governor Mario Cuomo is being courted by other networks and could well leave, under the terms of his contract, if he is passed over for the job.

Bill Weir, co-host of the weekend edition of "GMA," also has some high-level fans at the network and has been an able substitute with Roberts, but is considered a long shot.

As Sawyer, the unquestioned star of "GMA," prepares to exit the program at year's end, ABC executives have not decided between Stephanopoulos, 48, and Cuomo, 39. "We said this process would take about four months, and we're about a third of the way through that," spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said. "We're right on track."

People close to the situation, who described the process on condition of anonymity because of its confidential nature, say it is a particularly difficult call because each man has strengths as well as drawbacks. One question that has been decided is that "GMA" will return to the traditional male-female pairing, which was disrupted three years ago when Sawyer and Roberts teamed up after Charlie Gibson left the show for "World News."

The decision is crucial because the morning shows are major moneymakers for the networks. NBC's "Today" has led the pack for more than a decade, and Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira have drawn an average of 5.4 million viewers this year. "GMA" is in second place, with 4.2 million viewers, and CBS's "Early Show," with Harry Smith and Maggie Rodriguez, has averaged 2.7 million viewers.

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Roberts, who has co-hosted for five years and survived a bout with breast cancer, has made clear she has earned the right to be an equal partner after sometimes being eclipsed by Sawyer's celebrity wattage. Having done numerous interviews with President Obama, for instance, she would chafe at a situation in which Stephanopoulos handled most of the major political guests. Roberts's position is not unlike that of Matt Lauer when Katie Couric left "Today" in 2006 and he was no longer second fiddle. Roberts has told colleagues she wants to stay if the conditions are right, but could jump ship when her contract expires next year.

While impressed by Stephanopoulos's intelligence and hard work, Roberts is said to be more at ease with Cuomo. She and others at ABC question whether Stephanopoulos has the right DNA for a breakfast-hour program or whether he uses the same tone interviewing a White House official and an adventurer with a rattlesnake, one of his guests during this week's tryout.

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