‘GMA’ sez good night to Lunden

NEW YORK — Joan Lunden is out at ABC’s “Good Morning America” as part of the web’s effort to dramatically remake the ayem show in the face of sharply declining ratings.

Lunden will ankle “GMA” in September, but the network has named no successor, nor will it confirm rampant speculation that Marc Burstein also will leave as exec producer, a move that will usher in other talent and format changes.

Lunden, with 20 years at “GMA” and the last 17 as co-host, will ride out the remaining two years of her contract with four or five primetime specials, including the occasional “Behind Closed Doors” series, and may contribute to “PrimeTime Live” or “20/20.” In recent weeks, her reps are said to have approached other webs seeking offers.

ABC execs took pains to laud Lunden’s contributions over the years, and plan an appreciative sendoff at next week’s affiliates meeting in Orlando.

“She’s been, through the last 20 years, a driving force to the show for our viewers,” said ABC News prexy David Westin. “She’s wholesome, and an open and accessible, friendly surrogate for a lot of women around the country.”

But it’s no secret Lunden, along with cohort Charlie Gibson, represents a past “GMA” legacy that’s simply no longer clicking with viewers, and both Westin and ABC News chairman Roone Arledge are facing intense pressure to blunt the steady gains enjoyed by NBC’s surging “Today,” made largely at “GMA’s” expense. (CBS’ “This Morning,” a perennial also-ran, has made little headway with its own new format).

In a statement, Lunden claimed she sought relief from the early-morning gig after “waking America up with a smile” by asking “the executives of ABC to give me a chance to do something I’ve never done — wake up my own children with a smile, while they’re still children.” Lunden has certainly waited awhile for the privilege: Her three daughters are now 10, 14 and 16.

ABC has named no replacement for Lunden, although newsreader Elizabeth Vargas, legal correspondent Cynthia McFadden and correspondent Deborah Roberts all have been mentioned as candidates. “It just shows you there’s no compelling successor,” said one Lunden loyalist.

Gibson already is on record as willing to cede his own anchor chair, and may eventually wind up replacing Hugh Downs at “20/20.”

The exec producer slot has its own roster of rumored candidates, including David Friend, exec producer at Warner Bros.’ firstrun “Extra”; Joachim Blunck, who ran “A Current Affair,” “Good Day New York” and most recently, “Fox After Breakfast”; and former “Today” producer Steve Friedman.

Clearly, there’s a mandate for action. Once-dominant “GMA” lost its ratings lead in December 1995, and for the current broadcast season just ended is down 9% to a 4.0 rating and 17 household share as “Today” has climbed 9%, to a 5.0/21.

“We as a news division are not used to failing, and are not prepared to be No. 2,” Westin said, preparing for a rousing battle cry to affils. “Our intention is not being competitive with ‘Today,’ but beating the ‘Today’ show.”

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