GMA Recovers From ‘Best Season Ever’

Early this fall, Ben Sherwood, the executive producer of Good Morning America, gave every member of his staff a little plastic trophy, of a type typically awarded to the World’s Greatest Dads. On the faux-marble base, it read: “MVP GMA’s Best Season Ever 2004-2005.”

Embossed in gold, each tiny talisman was a reward for achieving the highest ratings in the 30-year history of the show. It was also a reminder of what was never quite achieved: a victory.

Winning—which around here means overtaking blood rival Today on NBC, if just for the most fleeting of weeks—is a feat that Good Morning America had not performed since 1995.

Despite the almost-first-place trophies and the rumors of champagne chilling in the fridge and the so-strong-you-can-smell-it ratings lust of Mr. Sherwood and his superiors, GMA didn’t do it, again, this fall. They got damn close. Then they fell far behind.

Having fought its way to within 40,000 viewers during one glorious five-day period last spring, Mr. Sherwood’s program is now losing to Today by more than a million viewers a week. Closed-door brainstorming sessions have been convened, according to ABC staffers. New producers specializing in popular culture have been brought in. Media consultants, including at least one veteran of the women’s-magazine world, were quietly retained.

Mr. Sherwood, not too long ago a big proponent of using the ratings gap as a measurement for success, now urges a look at the “big picture.”

Last spring, “many others predicted victory and a change in leadership in the morning,” he said. “We were focused on our goal, which is to find more viewers. And we have done that …. The gap will go up, the gap will go down; the gap will go up, the gap will go down. Our goal is to continue to find more viewers and make Good Morning America the first choice for more viewers every morning.”

There are rumors now of tension between Mr. Sherwood, who has been in his current position since April 2004, and Ms. Sawyer. For months, according to sources at his and other networks, he has been confiding his aspiration to move up to the fifth floor—the executive floor—of ABC. Mr. Sherwood denied both vigorously.

On the first point, he said, “I have a terrific relationship with Diane. She’s a terrific anchor. She’s a great producer, and she’s very involved in the program. We are in constant and very productive communication about making the show better.”

On the second, he said, “I work for [ABC News president] David Westin and [ABC News senior V.P.] Phyllis McGrady …. With all my heart and all my passion, I’m doing Good Morning America.”

Mr. Sherwood, 41, has a reputation in the television industry for being aggressively aspirational. In a 1988 Spy magazine profile that has surreptitiously been making the rounds in television circles recently, Andrew Sullivan described a 24-year-old Mr. Sherwood who expressed admiration for Machiavelli. Somewhat prophetically, Mr. Sullivan also noted a photograph of Mr. Sherwood hugging Diane Sawyer on the set of the CBS Evening News, which was framed and hanging on his wall at Oxford.

Several who have worked with Mr. Sherwood mentioned his “perfectionism” as a dominant characteristic, and he happily admits as much. When Good Morning America got within striking distance of Today last spring, Mr. Sherwood framed an article about the ratings surge that appeared on the front of the business section of The New York Times and hung it in the anteroom outside his office.

But his perfectionism has been tried in recent months as GMA has failed to capitalize on its ratings jump. Now a new deadline looms: If Good Morning America and its heroine, Diane Sawyer, want a bona fide victory over Today (and the competitive spirit of the morning-show wars suggests they must), they will need to win a week while Katie Couric, the most popular woman in television news, is still the anchor of the show. A victory doesn’t count if it’s not over the current incarnation of Today—so the theory goes. Ms. Couric, whose contract with NBC is up in May, is being actively courted by CBS to take over the Evening News.

“I assume that in 2006, there will be no changes any place in morning television,” said Mr. Sherwood. “I assume the same teams are playing all the way through, that CBS and NBC are both more competitive than ever.”

During the Best Season Ever, which occurred between Septembers 2004 and 2005, Good Morning America often hovered between five and six million viewers a day, added Robin Roberts as a third anchor alongside Charles Gibson and Ms. Sawyer, and for several weeks in May crept to within spitting distance of Today.

Come fall, all of ABC News was humbly atwitter with the possibility of finally beating America’s First Family. The Today show was on the verge of celebrating 10 years of uninterrupted weekly victories. A loss short of that anniversary would have emboldened ABC and devastated NBC, a fact that Ms. Couric acknowledged in a conference call with reporters in December, after it didn’t happen.

Gearing up for November sweeps, Mr. Sherwood and his staff devised strategies for victory, according to network sources. Well, strategy, really: Good Morning America would harness the ratings power of ABC’s primetime hit Desperate Housewives, which by the end of its first season was drawing a nightly audience of around 35 million viewers, many of whom fell smack dab in the morning show’s ideal demographics (women; young people; any person with a Nielsen box willing to sit through headlines, news reports, cooking segments, fashion shows and countless exercises in corporate synergy to see a few minutes of deleted material from an overhyped Sunday-night soap opera).

The plan was to win via a cross-promotional bonanza the likes of which no broadcast network had seen since Survivor. Good Morning America began running promos identifying the news show as the nation’s ultimate destination for all things Desperate. Actors would do interviews. Feature pieces would piggyback off the plot of the show. During informal “water cooler” chats, Ms. Sawyer and her co-anchors would puzzle over the latest developments on Wisteria Lane.

Except that come November, Desperate Housewives, while maintaining most of its high viewership, had lost most its buzz. How a show chiefly about screwing in every sense of the word—a little carpentry work even gets done between all the bathtub nookie and elaborate assassination plots—has faded so quickly is anyone’s guess.

In a Dec. 30 e-mail to his staff, a copy of which was obtained by The Observer, Mr. Sherwood wrote: “How did GMA make such strides? Simple: Your great work, creativity and passion. Sure, some may say we got a little lift from Susan, Bree, Gabrielle, and Lynette”—the desperate housewives themselves—“but you and your ideas are the secret of the show’s success.”

“Obviously, you’re right to take advantage of what you have on your own network,” said Phil Griffin, the NBC executive in charge of Today. “But you can’t rely on it. The Today show has never relied on the internal stuff—that isn’t what we do. What we do is news. If you’re gonna call yourself the Desperate Housewives Headquarters, you’re putting too much reliance on something that is out of your control. That is all bonus. What defines you is what you are.”

Meanwhile, Today, under new executive producer Jim Bell, focused on returning the show to its roots. Mr. Bell was brought on in April, after GMA dramatically closed the ratings gap and former Today executive producer Tom Touchet was fired as a result. Mr. Bell said that his strategy was to bring back harder news at the top of the 7 a.m. hour, increase the amount of time set aside for impromptu host banter and speed up the pace of the show. During the week of Dec. 19, Today drew an average of 5.86 million viewers, while Good Morning America drew an average of 4.79 million.

“I’d love to say it’s clearly our genius” that brought the ratings gap back to a more comfortable million, said Mr. Bell, “but I’d be about as comfortable saying that as I would be saying, ‘Oh, it’s all their fault.’ The truth is there’s a lot of factors going into this. I just know what I think works for us, and we’ve gone back to a lot of those things.”

Today, with its renewed focus on hard news, benefited from a season full of big stories, said Mr. Griffin. NBC did especially well in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when ABC suffered from poor planning and unfortunate circumstances. Having just lost Peter Jennings to lung cancer, the network was anchorless during the storm. That—and the fact that ABC didn’t have adequate resources in New Orleans for days after the hurricane hit, according to network staffers—made the competition lopsided in September.

NBC has the Olympics in February, and Mr. Bell, who was a sports producer before he switched to Today, said he anticipates a healthy ratings boost from the games. But looking forward, there’s still reason for optimism at Good Morning America, which managed to retain anchor Charles Gibson after he was considered to succeed Mr. Jennings on World News Tonight. Though it might be less satisfying circumstances for victory, Ms. Couric’s departure from NBC could provide another opportunity for making up trophies.

Mr. Sherwood declined to discuss any specific strategies for the coming months.

“I won’t get into that,” he said. “Suffice it to say there’s been a lot of thinking, a lot of planning, about the new year. We’re concerned with making a better show, a more relevant show. It goes back to that perfectionism thing.”

GMA Recovers From ‘Best Season Ever’