Tom Shales on Stephanopoulos's 'GMA': No Surprises

OVER EASY: JuJu Chang and George Stephanopoulos joined Robin Roberts and Sam Champion with little incident.
OVER EASY: JuJu Chang and George Stephanopoulos joined Robin Roberts and Sam Champion with little incident. (Donna Svennevik/associated Press)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Another chapter in the long history of the morning wars has begun; on Monday George Stephanopoulos moved smoothly if not memorably into the anchor chair left vacant on "Good Morning, America" by the departure of the arguably irreplaceable Diane Sawyer, set to begin anchoring "ABC World News" next Monday.

Stephanopoulos said a tentative farewell Sunday to viewers of "This Week," the program he has hosted for seven years (he will continue hosting, he said, until a successor is named). White House correspondent Jake Tapper is among those in line to take over from Stephanopoulos on Sunday mornings.

There also have been rumors that Ted Koppel, who left ABC News in 2005 after 42 years of faithful service (25 of them anchoring "Nightline"), could be lured back to ABC to host the Sunday-morning show, which in recent months has come within millimeters of tying NBC's long-dominant "Meet the Press" in the ratings.

Stephanopoulos -- joining Robin Roberts, new news anchor JuJu Chang and giddy weatherman Sam Champion -- appeared neither stiff and starchy nor laid-back and casual as he began his "GMA" stint, but hovered somewhere in between. He's a journalist, not a TV "host," and hasn't had much experience at playing it cool and carefree on the air.

His ad-libbing was not particularly ingenious. "Look at those!" he said when a set of "bionic fingers," the latest thing in high-tech prostheses, was demonstrated. After a report on a missing woman in Utah whose husband and two sons had supposedly been out camping when she disappeared, Stephanopoulos quietly exclaimed, "Camping at 12:30 on a Sunday night?!"

That was about it. But Stephanopoulos is certainly personable on the air and calmly in command when allowed to pilot the ship. He's clearly not the boy next door; at the conclusion of a two-way interview with senior presidential adviser David Axelrod, speaking from the White House, Axelrod reached down and pulled up a small alarm clock "permanently set to 3:30 a.m.," the time Stephanopoulos has to get up each morning.

It was a gift to Stephanopoulos "from all your friends at the White House," Axelrod said. Nice place to have friends. Axelrod said the office he was speaking from used to be Stephanopoulos's; that was during the Clinton years.

So it went, all very cordial and chummy if not the sort of thing with which Mr. and Mrs. American Viewer could empathize. Later he shook hands with the $80,000 bionic fingers, a nice touch (so to speak), survived the banalities of the 7:50 chit-chat segment and debriefed Dr. Oz, the house physician.

That report was wrapped around a plug for Oz's TV show, just as a piece on a little girl in India born with eight limbs was tied to a longer segment forthcoming on the National Geographic channel.

Now, why would Stephanopoulos take a job with terrible hours and with less prestige than the one he had? There is precedent for a "GMA" co-host to move on up to be anchor of "World News" -- first Charlie Gibson, now Sawyer -- and Stephanpoulos may be looking to land that job in the long run. Although the three newscasts are less prominent and popular by far than they were back in the pre-cable and pre-Internet era, the job of anchor still carries a certain singular status.

After all, there are still only three of them in this galaxy. Television, on the other hand, may still be facing the kind of sweeping changes that could mean the extinction of one or more broadcast networks, or the return of evening-news time to local stations, or drastic reduction in the size of news division staffs, in addition to all the merciless cutbacks and downsizing of recent years.

At ABC, present-day changes include a redeployment of some of the most conspicuous jobs in the news division, although it seems to stop short of being a "shake-up." Gibson, "World News" anchor since 2006, is retiring not just from the broadcast but from ABC News, his professional home for 35 years, at the end of this week.

ABC is trying to make a big deal out of his last week on the air, but the bigger deal would appear to be Sawyer's imminent arrival on "World News," the beginning of a new era in which two of the three broadcast-network evening newscasts are anchored by women. (The other, of course, is anchored by pugnacious Katie Couric at CBS.)

In its first hour Monday, "GMA" featured a report from Rome by an Associated Press correspondent, an interview with Curt Knox (father of Amanda Knox, the American imprisoned in Italy) from the BBC, and clips of President Obama speaking on "60 Minutes" and to Oprah Winfrey. Not that much came from ABC News.

The only awkward moments for Stephanopoulos during his "GMA" debut came when he had to stand in a line with his colleagues. Of the group, he is the shortest, dramatically so when standing next to the statuesque Roberts. Is he, then, a big enough man to fill Diane Sawyer's shoes? There probably is no such creature; the sweet solace of seeing Sawyer early in the morning is over, and no one is likely to bring that kind of glamour and gorgeousness to "GMA," or to morning television, ever again.

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