Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly said that Bob Woodruff was seriously wounded in Iraq while serving as an ABC war correspondent. At the time, Woodruff was co-anchor of ABC's "World News Tonight."

Tom Shales on possible role-switching for George Stephanopoulos and Diane Sawyer

By Tom Shales
Tuesday, November 10, 2009

In network television, Sunday mornings are not for sleeping in, going to church or Belgian waffles. They're for the Sunday morning talk shows, serious political palaver platforms that sometimes make news and consistently attract a demographically attractive audience.

If it sounds as though the programs dwell in a sleepy nook offering refuge from TV's feverish competition, that's not the case. The competition is heated if not feverish, dominated by the struggle of ABC's "This Week" to catch up with, and then overtake, NBC's longtime ratings champ "Meet the Press."

Now that contest has reached a new stage: ABC News bosses are talking to "This Week" moderator George Stephanopoulos, 48, about moving up to an anchor chair on the daily "Good Morning, America" show -- where Stephanopoulos would have to deal with baby-buggy recalls, interview movie stars, and pose for a never-ending series of publicity shots, perhaps including one of him dancing the Paso Doble.

Talks continue.

Every week, publicists at ABC News crow about chunks chipped away from the NBC lead on Sunday mornings. On Nov. 1, ABC continued to shrivel the gap: Nielsen figures show 3,140,000 viewers sticking with "Meet the Press" and 2,750,000 watching "This Week" (the shows do not air directly opposite each other in every market).

A year ago, the gap between NBC's haughty front-runner and ABC's scrappy contender was 1,090,000; now it's down to 390,000 viewers, a clear and dramatic change. Improvement on this scale suggests it's a mere matter of time before "This Week" regains the top spot it had when David Brinkley, the legendary newsman for whom the show was created (by Roone Arledge, longtime ABC News and Sports president), was its polite, proper and popular star.

Stephanopoulos, formerly of the Bill Clinton brain trust, is also polite, but he's a determined competitor, too. You can bet he looks at the ratings the minute they come into the office.

One might assume he'd want to stay with "This Week" as it wends its way to the top (though "wending" may be too mild a verb), then preside triumphantly over the victory. And yet industry sources say he is giving serious consideration to "GMA," where he'd replace the ever-incandescent Diane Sawyer. Sawyer is fleeing the early hours to take over ABC's evening "World News" show when Charlie Gibson steps down in January.

Sawyer seems perfect for the job she is getting; indeed, it's the kind of thing that should probably have happened years ago but didn't. In recent years, the history of "World News" has been marked by trauma -- first, the death of anchor Peter Jennings, then the hospitalization and lengthy recovery of reporter Bob Woodruff, seriously wounded while serving as an ABC war correspondent in Iraq.

The arrival of Sawyer should bring stability as well as dazzling class to the broadcast.

Meanwhile in the fragile early-morning hours, the prospect of Stephanopoulos co-hosting the funsy, often frivolous "Good Morning, America" is not quite so cheering. In fact, it's unpleasant, a potential squandering of talents which are ideally suited to "This Week" and have served it well. Stephanopoulos would be walking into less than peaceful territory; "GMA" is a troubled mess, having settled into murky ratings doldrums lately after a few years of edging closer to, but never quite catching, NBC's "Today," the Moby Dick of morning shows.

Now "Today" appears to have pulled away again, and "GMA" is no longer hot on its heels.

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