Curious George’s ABC Adventure

Self-editing is great in politics. It’s fine for the host of a Sunday news show. And once upon a time, not so long ago in American life, in the epoch now known as pre-Snooki, public discretion was considered a moral virtue. But now we live in the heyday of indiscretion. Morning television is part of the game. The genre demands full exposure from its anchors. On-air colonoscopies are the gold standard. Anchors must create the illusion of openness. “With George, there’s a wall there,” said Mr. Gay. 

 

MANY YEARS AGO, before Mr. Stephanopoulos studied Christian ethics as a Rhodes Scholar at Cambridge, before he made his name in national politics, and before he left the White House for ABC News, he spent his early years preparing for life as a priest. His father was a priest in the Greek Orthodox Church. So too his grandfather. And even years after eschewing the priesthood for politics and media, a sense of emotional reserve befitting a man of the cloth still hangs about him.  

Early in his career, that sensibility served him well. In his early 30s, as the communications director for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential run, Mr. Stephanopoulos regularly fought to keep the skeletons in Mr. Clinton’s closet from derailing everything. One moment, it was Gennifer Flowers popping up on the cover of Star, alleging a long affair with Mr. Clinton. The next, it was Connie Hamzy, the Little Rock groupie. Again and again, Mr. Stephanopoulos deftly diffused the “bimbo eruptions,” steering countless reporters away from the temptations of the Clinton bedroom story. There has been a wall between public and private life in American politics, the fresh-faced son of a priest argued, and it should be respected.

But there are no altar boys in morning television, and no real walls. In the coming weeks and months, to succeed in his new job, Mr. Stephanopoulos must pull off the opposite trick. Instead of burying the messy, private details of American public figures (including his own), his task will be to coax those details to light.

How’s it going so far? Although to date, ABC News has taken a low-key approach toward promoting the new team of George, Robin,  Sam Champion and Juju Chang, they put on the full-court press for this article.

“I think he’s doing remarkably well,” said David Westin, the president of ABC News.

“It’s going spectacular,” said Jim Murphy, the executive producer of GMA. “What’s surprised me is his range. … He has no problem dealing with everything. He does his homework. And he cares to death. It all works out.”

“The entire chemistry of the new cast is very good,” said Bill Fine, the head of WCVB, the ABC affiliate in Boston.

“We’ve had a smooth start, and we’re having fun,” said Mr. Stephanopoulos.

Mr. Stephanopoulos, who called in to comment at the eleventh hour, said he talks about the show with his wife all the time. “Her real background is in improv. She’s terrific in teaching me …” He paused. “How to go with it.”

He went on. “When it feels right for the story and appropriate, I do it,” he added. “I think it’s important not to force it, but not to block it, either. So when I was doing a segment with Dr. Richard Besser about anti-depressants, I was happy to talk about that, and my experience. When he did a segment on head lice, and my family had just come out of a week of being de-loused, we talked about that. If it makes sense for the story, I’m open to it.”

Recently on GMA, Mr. Stephanopoulos asked Rosie O’Donnell for her opinion. “Well, I think you’re doing pretty well,” said Ms. O’Donnell. “You just have to relax.”

Easier said than done. Anchoring GMA has always been a high-pressure job. But it’s now more important for ABC News than ever. Whereas NBC News can lean on the large profits of CNBC and MSNBC, ABC News has no cable news channels to provide subscription fees and must rely heavily on GMA to generate revenue. As such, it is of dire importance to Mr. Stephanopoulos and all of his colleagues that GMA hold on to (if not increase) its viewers.

So far this year, that hasn’t happened. During the first five weeks of 2010, GMA has averaged 1,948,000 viewers in the 25-54 demographic on which news divisions sell ads. In the first five weeks of 2009, with Diane Sawyer still at the helm, GMA averaged 2,172,000. That’s a year-to-year decline of 10.4 percent. A significant dip in eyeballs, when every last penny of advertising counts. ABC News executives point out that it’s still very early in the Stephanopoulos era and that, year-to-year, all the morning news shows are losing viewers. To wit: During the same time frame, CBS’s The Early Show is down 14.4 percent versus 2009; NBC’s top rated Today is down 3.7 percent.

Mr. Westin, the president of ABC News, said he is pleased so far with Mr. Stephanopoulos and has confidence in the new team. He said that in the wake of the departure of a star like Diane Sawyer, he fully expected that it would take time for GMA to make up any ground on NBC’s Today. “I’m hopeful that if you talk to me in six months or a year that the audience will have responded,” said Mr. Westin. “This is way early going. But the way I look at it, we are in better shape than I would have predicted at this point.”

Mr. Westin said he chose Mr. Stephanopoulos for the job, in part, to beef up the substance of the show. “George has the qualities which are essential to a successful morning anchor,” he said. “He’s very intelligent. He’s very curious. He has a wide range of interests. And he has a natural way about him.”

“I think people should also be careful of underestimating George,” he added.

Back in the studio on Wednesday morning, the GMA producers treated their new anchor to a birthday surprise. With Mr. Stephanopoulos looking on, the cameras zoomed in on Ali Wentworth, who had popped up in the studio, wearing a blond wig. She promptly launched into an impression of Diane Sawyer. A few seconds later, she tore off her wig and removed her jacket, revealing a leopard-print dress. “Oh, honey, George, I never, ever get to see you at home,” she said. “I love you.” Ms. Wentworth mounted the table and began crawling on her hands and knees toward the camera. “I shaved my legs and made you a steak.”

This was the job Mr. Stephanopoulos had signed up for. He blushed.

“Happy birthday, baby,” said Ms. Wentworth, gyrating her hips for the camera.

“Welcome to morning TV, George,” Ms. Roberts chimed in. “Welcome to morning TV.”