Stephanopoulos and Cuomo, vying for a seat -- at 'GMA'
Possible successors to Sawyer have politics, but little else, in common

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.

On Wednesday, when Stephanopoulos spoke with Diena Thompson, a Florida woman whose 7-year-old daughter was missing (and later found murdered), he briskly ended the interview without expressing sympathy for her plight. Tabloid crime stories are a proven ratings winner for morning TV, and hosts also have to sample delicacies with chefs and chat up movie stars.

But Stephanopoulos has shown a considerable capacity for growth. If he gets the nod, it would cap an extraordinary rise for ABC's chief Washington correspondent, who joined the network in 1997 after leaving the Clinton White House, a stint that became the subject of his $3 million memoir. Under one arrangement being discussed, Stephanopoulos would take Fridays off and continue to host "This Week" on Sundays, although two executives dismissed such talk as premature.

After originally being hired as a liberal member of the show's roundtable, paired with conservative Bill Kristol, Stephanopoulos became the program's host in 2002 and has gradually grown more confident in that role. But viewers have become accustomed to morning hosts sharing their personal lives, and the normally guarded Stephanopoulos would be expected to talk about his wife, actress Alexandra Wentworth, and their children.

For Westin, whose search is being carefully monitored by executives at parent company Disney, Stephanopoulos could be sold as a prominent successor to Sawyer, while Cuomo would merely be getting an in-house promotion.

Unlike Stephanopoulos, who began as a Capitol Hill aide, Cuomo comes from a famous political family but has never worked in politics. He is not campaigning for the job, making him the second reluctant candidate in his family. His brother Andrew Cuomo, New York's attorney general, is being pushed by some Democrats to run for governor but for now does not want to openly challenge incumbent David Paterson.

Cuomo, a lawyer, is viewed within ABC as a solid performer who has yet to become a breakout star. He is the guy who raced off to the Virginia Tech shootings and the California wildfires, booked Jon Gosselin of "Jon & Kate Plus 8" and once went bungee-jumping off an Atlantic City casino's roof. Still, he said last year, "I'm not good at faking the funk, as Robin likes to say. My shtick is having no shtick."

Cuomo has expressed reluctance to take the job unless the network puts its full promotional machinery behind him. Anchors at ABC often cite the experience of Kevin Newman, who was made a "GMA" co-host in 1998 and, as ratings fell, dumped seven months later for the team of Sawyer and Gibson.

If there is any personal rivalry between the two contenders, it remained well hidden this week as Cuomo reported for his news reader's job during Stephanopoulos's tryout.

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