This could have been a great week at ABC.
On Tuesday, the network proudly announced that “Live! With Kelly and Michael” co-host Michael Strahan will jump to big leagues this fall to join “Good Morning America,” the most-watched morning show in the country. It was triumphant news: GMA, which has seen a slight decline in ratings, could get a boost. And Strahan, who has gone from former New York Giants defensive end to TV celebrity, could solidify his star status.
Then the story changed.
A day after ABC’s announcement, co-host Kelly Ripa didn’t show up for work. “Kelly’s off today,” Strahan smoothly told the studio audience Wednesday, introducing his guest host, former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Ana Gasteyer. Within hours, the stories were everywhere: Ripa, who has hosted the show since 2001, was furious. She reportedly felt blindsided because Disney management (“Live!” is distributed by Disney-ABC Domestic Television) didn’t inform her earlier about Strahan’s move, and took it as a sign of disrespect toward the show.
The story only picked up steam as the day went on: Ripa “went crazy” and was “feeling hurt and betrayed on so many levels,” reported People magazine, which frequently partners with ABC for specials. The network would not comment. Eventually a show spokeswoman confirmed Ripa will not be on the show with Strahan through at least next Monday — and added she was already scheduled to take off Friday and Monday on vacation. There’s no word on when she’ll be back.
Morning shows are frequently the source of drama, even if it’s just perceived, and networks have learned that one wrong move can cause a huge ripple effect: Remember in 2012 when NBC decided to remove co-host Ann Curry from the “Today” show, which prompted that awful moment when Curry broke down crying on her last day on air? The backlash was vicious, particularly toward co-host Matt Lauer. It took the once-unstoppable show — now finally catching up to “GMA” in the ratings — months, if not years, to recover as viewers fled.
While the Ripa incident doesn’t seem likely to be on the same level (some crisis-management experts feel the whole thing could blow over rather quickly), it’s still a potential public relations nightmare. Television viewers can grow unusually attached to morning show co-hosts, as they provide steady background to the hectic morning routine. How can ABC make sure this doesn’t spiral?
“This should have been a nice announcement for Strahan and ‘Good Morning America’ and ABC,” Jack Deschauer, a senior vice president at Levick, a crisis communications firm. “Once something like this happens and goes awry, it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle.”
The ultimate goal for the network should be to work quickly behind the scenes to smooth things over with Ripa. But most importantly, Deschauer said, the show needs to hire a new co-host sooner rather than later,
Still, he said, Ripa is the one who has control here. “This story is going to have as many legs as Kelly Ripa gives it,” he said. The longer she stays off the air, the more opportunity she has for the tabloids to splash her face across the front page and speculate about what’s really going on.
However you feel about Ripa, Strahan and Disney-ABC, it’s worth noting that these situations can be unusually difficult, particularly the delicate dance between talent and network executives. There are behind-the-scenes machinations just like the office politics anywhere else.
“It’s always a complicated relationship between the on-air talent and management, because they’re so important to the organization, yet they are not part of the management team,” said Mendes Napoli, president of the Napoli Management Group, which represents 600 TV newscasters.
And at its core, the Ripa situation is an employee-management issue, even if it’s one being played out very publicly. “I think when people don’t have a voice yet are given the charge to bring in the audience and be the face of the show, it’s difficult,” Napoli said. “Yes, there’s ego, but I don’t think of it so much as ego as a difficult position from both sides.”