Good Morning America’s recent ratings surge against the long-dominant Today show has framed a good old-fashioned catfight, as irresistible as Alexis and Krystle wrestling in the mud (and no crying sexism, please: early-a.m. TV is women’s playing field, just as late-night is men’s. It’s simple demographics): ABC’s Diane versus NBC’s Katie.
It’s a beautiful opposition, even if slightly false: The two women each share screen time with so many other broadcasters, bumping news items around like beach volleyballs, that they’re barely distinguishable as the well-paid anchors they are. Until one sits down for a solid block of morning shows, one might forget how inherently annoying the genre is-comforting in times of crisis, perhaps, but usually just a blaring intrusion on the purest and most possible of hours: the coffee mugs, the banal desk patter, the jolly “ethnic” weatherpeople, the morons screaming behind ropes outside with hand-lettered placards.
Still, the two leading ladies present a fascinating contrast. Katie is populist, Diane is patrician. Katie is pocket-sized, Diane something of a giantess. Katie is warm, Diane is cool-but a luminous cool, like the moon (not for nothing does she also shine down on you Thursdays at 10 p.m. on Primetime Live). Her lit-from-within quality-incredibly, the woman turns 60 later this year-recalls Cybil Shepherd and the old gauzed lens on Moonlighting, to the nth power.
The focus lately, however, has mostly been on Katie-and the lighting has been pretty harsh (see Alessandra Stanley’s piece a month ago in The New York Times, with its references to Ms. Couric’s “peremptory voice” and “clickety stiletto heels,” the harridan echo of which, Ms. Stanley alleged, without a hint of attribution, sends fellow NBC staffers cowering).
Appearing on Today Friday morning alongside his latest Apprentice winner-“a woman, yay,” Ms. Couric pointed out; who says feminism is dead?-developer Donald Trump made knowing reference to this reputation.
Ms. Couric: “Donald, why did you want to see how these two finalists could manage three people with whom they really didn’t get along?”
Mr. Trump: “Because, Katie, in business and in life, and you know this very well”-and here he extended a patronizing paw in the general direction of her famous knee-“you’re forced to work with people that you don’t like. Have you ever had that problem? Noo …. “
Ms. Couric grinned uncomfortably, rolled her eyes upward. “Not too many, actually. No, not too many!”
“No, it’s just a ball of roses,” Mr. Trump said. “It’s just a ball of roses.” Winkety-wink.
What’s the matter with Katie, anyway? She’s all right! It’s understandably tricky for someone who is nearing 50 herself, who has endured the death of her husband and a constant raking-over from the tabloids for her subsequent beaux (who reportedly include “smooth jazz” trumpeter Chris Botti), to continue to display the girl-next-door quality that first earned her the nation’s affection. It’s also hard to be the girl next-door when you live on Park Avenue and rake in something like a bazillion dollars per annum, though the NBC sensation still apparently gets shut out at the Cineplex like any average Josie: “I took the girls to see Star Wars, and it was sold out,” she complained on Monday to her co-anchor, Matt Lauer. (She took ’em to a French film instead, but found it “a little too sophisticated.”) Having long abandoned her pixie haircut and “perky” mien, which she is on record as despising, Ms. Couric now exudes a weary soccer-mom calm, the exhaustion of one who has led too many Cub Scout troops. “My voice is getting hoarse because I’m having to yell a bit,” she said patiently on Monday, outside in the rain wearing a long white coat that gave her a clinical appearance, as a brace of morons jumped up and down behind her, shouting things like “We love you Katie-whooo!”
They’re never going to love Diane with quite the same fervor, but they probably respect her more. Next to her genial, dimpled co-host, Charles Gibson (a total 1950’s throwback, as opposed to Mr. Lauer’s Rogaine’d, fine-boned millennial metrosexual), Ms. Sawyer stands at a cool remove, like her namesake goddess, radiating competence, rolling off old-school Wellesley vowels as she greets classless guests: “Thanks sooo much for joining us …. Thank you sooo much.”
Katie is a woman’s woman, and Diane is a man’s woman. “Everybody knows Diane’s sexy, c’mon,” said the comedian Chris Rock, nervously caressing footballs on Good Morning America alongside actor Adam Sandler Tuesday as they promoted their new movie, a remake of The Longest Yard. “You are the sexiest person in the morning,” Mr. Rock added, “so much sexier than Matt Lauer.” Clad in a hot pink sweater and a dotted skirt, Ms. Sawyer buried her head in her hand and giggled throatily, her marvelous pantyhosed legs dangling over her chair.
Diane is, as the fashion magazines like to say, aspirational-discreet, dignified, oozing money and culture (remember, she’s married to the director Mike Nichols), even in this milieu. You’re not going to catch her clapping hands eagerly and saying “yay,” though she might strap on a harness and soar above the audience in a flying trapeze (November 2003, Cirque du Soleil-part of a sweeps event about fulfilling fantasies). Yet during a “service” piece on self-tanners on Monday, Ms. Sawyer lunged forth gamely, sexily, to examine cheerleaders’ lotioned knees-“mm-hmm!”-and it didn’t even look like slumming. On Tuesday, as part of a series called “Good to Go to Work!”, she earnestly addressed the camera on the following matter: “Don’t Let Age Derail Your Career.” “We all know about the glass ceiling, but what about the gray ceiling?” she purred. Oh, yes-tell us about the gray ceiling, golden Diane. Tell us.
Some wag over at Today, meanwhile, arranged a piece on Monday called “Is Your Boss a Bully?” (Mr. Lauer handled this one.)
It’s amazing, actually, what clones the two shows are, news-wise, as if it’s all coming out of the same vat, like the old joke about wonton soup. GMA alone maintains the crawl at the bottom of the screen that came into vogue after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, lending it a certain “newsier” feeling. But there were near-identical segments on stem-cell research, on Saddam in his undies, on a Florida teenager manhandled by a school-bus driver (morning television loves abused kids), on Star Wars ad nauseam. First Lady Laura Bush beamed into both shows from Giza, Egypt, with a fixed expression, a sand-colored pantsuit miraculously coordinating with the Sphinx and the Pyramids behind her.
Today remains folksier, more common: shipping in a couple to swing-dance-swing-dance-at Rockefeller Center, with a cringe-inducing visit from a prune-like Patrick Swayze (Dirty Dancing); still trotting out Willard Scott to celebrate centenarians’ birthdays; arranging a remote with Ryan Seacrest to smack down ABC’s investigation into American Idol as “a bunch of nothing.” (Ms. Couric, through gritted teeth: “Ah, isn’t the entertainment world a beautiful thing, Ryan?”).
The more cosmopolitan GMA just seems to be having more fun with its Nielsens efflux (at two hours instead of three, it’s also more digestible): correspondents dispatched to London, Milan and Paris to try and crack the “real” Da Vinci Code; the supermodel Naomi Campbell sharing her video diary from Cannes; the appearance of mega-stadium stars like U2 rather than middling acts like Kelly Clarkson and Rob Thomas. Still, this is morning TV.
On Tuesday, Ms. Sawyer, the onetime Nixon press aide, watched a stray pooch who’d gotten a makeover from Doggy Do and Pussycats Too. The producers were calling it Queer Eye for the Scruffy Dog.
“Petunia is not only available,” cooed Ms. Sawyer, as the animal writhed around. “Petunia is working it up here!”
And so, too, was she.