The easygoing 'GMA'? His going wasn't easy.

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 11, 2009

As he wrestled with whether to surrender his Sunday morning franchise and accept ABC's offer to co-host "Good Morning America," George Stephanopoulos kept coming back to one central fact.

"Ali and I and the girls love Washington," he said, recalling "dozens" of conversations with his wife, comic actress Alexandra Wentworth, about moving to New York. "That's what made it so difficult. . . . To have to leave Washington and eventually give up 'This Week' was terribly hard for me."

As for whether the sharp-edged analyst will be comfortable in the easygoing morning-show atmosphere, he said: "I'm going to feel my way through it. I'm sure I'll make mistakes sometimes."

Determined to keep his hand in his former profession, Stephanopoulos, 48, persuaded the network to give him another role that will showcase him on all ABC broadcasts: chief political correspondent. "That's what I know. That's what I love," he said.

ABC's announcement Thursday that Stephanopoulos will replace Diane Sawyer, who on Friday is ending her decade-long morning reign to anchor the network's "World News," amounts to a major gamble. But his new partner on "GMA," Robin Roberts, pronounced herself pleased.

"Yeah, he worked in the White House, he's a political guy, we all know that," she said. "But we all were not understanding that he is multidimensional. He's married to Ali Wentworth, my gosh. The guy has to have a sense of humor."

While much of the discussion has focused on whether "GMA" would be reshaped to suit Stephanopoulos, network executives say they were already in the process of adding newsier segments at the expense of lighter fare.

"This was not a matter of George trying to extract from me a commitment to do that," said ABC News President David Westin. Picking Stephanopoulos "was an advantage for me. It would be a statement to our audience that this is a different program. . . . I'm not saying we're never going to do cooking on the program. It's a matter of how much cooking, and how we do it."

Senior Executive Producer Jim Murphy added, "We're not going to blow up the morning television format. We'll still do parenting stuff and medical stories and, yes, once in a while we'll talk about diets. We'll do a little less of the really fluffy stuff -- what I call trimming the fat."

The other leading contender, Chris Cuomo, has been named a "20/20" co-anchor, chief legal correspondent and roving reporter, which he told viewers is a "dream job."

Westin made the offer two weeks ago, and Stephanopoulos accepted by e-mail last weekend. "He is very careful, very thorough," Westin said. "He wanted to make sure he thought this through."

Stephanopoulos will continue hosting Washington-based "This Week" for a few weeks while ABC picks a successor, with such names as White House correspondent Jake Tapper and "Nightline" co-anchor Terry Moran being bandied about. Stephanopoulos originally wanted to hang on to both programs but came to realize that was untenable.

"It's simply not possible to do 11 hours of television a week in two cities," he said. "I was really struggling with that." For ABC, the morning show is a bigger platform and far bigger moneymaker than a Washington public-affairs program. And as Stephanopoulos said at a staff meeting, he's an early-to-bed type who already gets up at 4 a.m.

Morning television has become a key launching pad for aspiring network anchors, and Stephanopoulos is thought to be eyeing an eventual perch at "World News" after Sawyer retires. Tom Brokaw was the first to make the day-to-night leap, having worked at "Today" before being tapped for "NBC Nightly News" in 1982. In the past three years, "GMA" has served as a steppingstone for both Sawyer and Charlie Gibson, while Katie Couric famously spent 15 years at "Today" before jumping to CBS and its evening newscast.

Stephanopoulos came to national prominence as a brash member of Bill Clinton's 1992 rapid-response team. Although some conservatives are still wary of the onetime White House adviser, Stephanopoulos says that in his 12 years at ABC, "I've proven I can do tough, fair interviews and incisive analysis without a partisan bias, again and again." ABC has been grooming him for years as a Washington wise man; now he must assume a broader role.

"The Diane Show is gone and now it's going to be the George Show," said Steve Friedman, who has run morning programming at NBC and CBS. With "GMA" well behind "Today" and well ahead of CBS's "Early Show" in the ratings, he said, "they have time to see what works. It is more of a personality-driven venue than 'This Week' is. George has always had a big personality. You have to let people into your life. That's part of the territory."

Gibson, who spent 19 years on "GMA," said the challenge is "knowing when to have fun and relax. George is very smart. He made himself into a better interviewer, became more relaxed on the roundtable. George will figure it out very quickly on 'GMA.' He'll figure out how to work with Robin. You can't do it on paper. You can't do it in rehearsals."

Roberts agrees, saying that "it takes time to develop your rhythm and your style. But he is a goodhearted family man."

When Westin first approached him in August, Stephanopoulos said, "a big part of my question was, 'Are you guys sure I'm going to serve the show well?' " He called it a "happy coincidence" that the network had already decided to change the tone of "GMA."

But is Stephanopoulos prepared to cook with celebrity chefs? "It's not that big a deal," he said, laughing. "I actually love to cook."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company