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Amy Robach, T.J. Holmes and the high-wire act of co-anchor chemistry

Networks spend millions trying to conjure the kind of energy the ‘GMA3’ anchors brought to the show. But news of their relationship threatens a delicate balance.

Amy Robach and T.J. Holmes in New York in May. (David Dee Delgado/Reuters)

Amy Robach and T.J. Holmes appeared to be in high spirits as they welcomed viewers back to ABC’s “GMA3” on the Monday after Thanksgiving.

“T.J. is multitasking today,” explained Robach, as she sat between a laptop-wielding Holmes and their fellow co-host, Jennifer Ashton. As Holmes insisted that he was simply consulting the agenda for the show, Robach grinned. “Or maybe whatever World Cup game is on right now?” she teased.

Ashton tried to get in on the jokes, but Robach and Holmes were off and running, and the camera quickly settled on just the two of them.

“Why do I confide in you about anything if you’re going to tell?!” fussed Holmes, 45.

“Confide?!?” exclaimed Robach, 49, gesturing to his laptop. “Everyone can see!”

“Well, they don’t know what’s going on. Let’s not do this in front of people,” Holmes said, laughing, smoothly taking his anchor banter into a transition about how viewers might also be multitasking, shopping for those Cyber Monday deals.

TV news executives spend countless hours and millions of dollars trying to conjure this kind of on-air electricity — the witty banter and easy comfort between co-anchors that will persuade viewers to make a show part of their daily routine. But moments like these — and there have been many since Robach and Holmes started hosting “Good Morning America’s” afternoon spinoff together in 2020 — were cast in a new light by Wednesday after the Daily Mail published an in-depth investigation revealing that the relationship between the anchors, both married to other people, had turned romantic.

After a couple of fraught days, ABC News executives on Monday removed the two from the air at least temporarily, their future unclear. It was a move that felt both ironic and inevitable: It’s never hurt a show to have co-anchors who clearly adore each other, and falling in love on the job is hardly unprecedented. Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski wed in 2018 after bicker-bantering for more than a decade on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

But a new romance can also inject volatility into the high-wire act of live TV and the family dynamic we’ve come to expect from the people who deliver us the news — especially on the morning and afternoon programs that “ooze wholesomeness,” said Evan Nierman, chief executive of global crisis PR firm Red Banyan.

Suddenly, Robach and Holmes are “in the conversation” in a way they never had been before, Nierman noted. “But it’s a pretty standard rule in journalism that you don’t want to become the story.”

When the Daily Mail approached ABC on Wednesday, Holmes at first denied to his bosses that he and Robach were involved, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an internal matter. That same morning, the tabloid published not only an account of the affair but 60 photos of the two looking cozy. One sequence captured the two of them packing their car after a trip to an isolated Upstate New York cabin, his hand fondly grazing her behind. The network has been on its back foot ever since.

The story ignited an internet storm. Holmes appeared on the show without Robach that day, and both deleted their Instagram accounts. Anonymous sources were quickly dispatched to the tabloids; some reported that the two had separated from their spouses over the summer.

Both anchors came up doing shoe-leather reporting in local TV markets — Holmes in his native Arkansas, Robach in Charleston, S.C., before moving to Washington’s WTTG (Ch. 5) — before moving into the softer, personality-driven realm of morning TV. Robach joined ABC in 2012, Holmes in 2014. Both are in their second marriages, to spouses they wed in 2010: Robach to former “Melrose Place” actor Andrew Shue, and Holmes to lawyer Marilee Fiebig. Neither Holmes nor Robach returned calls seeking comment.

Initially, ABC executives determined that the affair was a personal matter between consenting adults, according to one executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely. And on Thursday, Robach and Holmes were in front of the camera together again, joking about looking forward to the weekend, a vibe that turned positively giddy by the following day.

“You know, it’s too bad it’s Friday,” Holmes said to Robach with a jolly wryness, noting the “great week” he had enjoyed. “I just want this one to keep going and going and going, just enjoying it.”

“Speak for yourself,” Robach replied, with a laugh. The two then erupted in giggles during a wellness segment about how poppy seed bagels can trigger a positive result on a drug test.

Network executives, though, decided Saturday that a break was necessary as they plotted their next steps. A flurry of reports began to emerge in the New York Post alleging that Holmes had had other workplace romances and that colleagues had long been suspicious of his closeness with Robach. On Monday, ABC News President Kimberly Godwin told staff that while the relationship was not a violation of company policy, the pair “has become an internal and an external distraction.”

Even though the controversy involved a lower-profile spinoff of the more popular “Good Morning America,” the network response spoke to the deep investment audiences place in the lives of newscasters they see every day.

While the news has brought “GMA3” far more attention than it’s ever received before — ratings jumped by 12 percent over its average the day after the Daily Mail story broke, according to Nielsen — this is not the type of attention that broadcast executives relish.

If the pair is important to the network, “they’ll figure out a way to roll with [the relationship],” said Jonathan Klein, the former president of CNN, where he employed Holmes as an anchor from 2006 through 2011. “But if the romance turns out to be bad for the show, they could use this as an excuse to part ways with them.”

In an otherwise splintering media landscape, the TV news co-anchor dynamic remains a touchstone and a constant, particularly as morning shows have staked out some of the last claim to a mass appeal. If it weren’t for their morning shows, CBS News and ABC News would be losing money. (NBC News would still be profitable, aided mightily by its cable arm, MSNBC.)

Finding the elusive balance of cheerfulness, gravitas and chemistry between hosts is difficult, and it can play out publicly and messily — from NBC’s disastrous process of shunting Ann Curry off “Today” to replace her with Savannah Guthrie in 2012, to Kelly Ripa telling viewers how blindsided she was to learn at the last minute that co-host Michael Strahan would leave “Live!” to go to “Good Morning America” in 2016.

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In the early days, TV news was generally delivered by one person sitting behind a desk, said Mendes J. Napoli, chief executive of Napoli Management Group, a division of Paradigm Media Entertainment. But executives eventually reasoned that it would be wise to spread authority between two journalists — if viewers didn’t warm to one, they might connect with the other.

Typically, those two journalists were men, even in the free-form realm of morning TV, where co-hosts in the early days included a chimpanzee — J. Fred Muggs, who helped Dave Garroway make “Today” a hit for NBC — and comedian Ernie Kovacs, who camped it up as a lisping “poet laureate” on Philadelphia’s WPTZ in 1950.

But after Barbara Walters joined “Today” in the 1960s, eventually becoming co-host, executives realized that “morning shows tend to have a significant female audience, and they want to invite a woman they can relate to” into their homes, said Mitchell Stephens, who taught journalism at New York University and wrote several books on the history of the news business.

“Viewers were drawn to the chemistry between the two anchors,” said Napoli, who represents hundreds of TV broadcasters. “I hate to use the word ‘family-like,’ but people really viewed them as family.”

When British stage director Simon Godwin was looking for a fresh way to stage a new production of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” he realized he needed a plausible setting to make sense of the banter between Benedick and Beatrice — two romantic leads who spend most of the play verbally sparring while denying their obvious feelings for each other.

Where else can you find that kind of chemistry, fraught with public-private tension, on display? For his production that runs through Sunday at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, Godwin turned Benedick and Beatrice into broadcast news co-anchors.

“The adrenaline of presenting the news together is, I would say, a bonding experience. And you’re out there and presenting as a couple,” Godwin said. “For many people, the media is part of their family — and the stakes feel very high.”

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