Robin Roberts is best known as a morning-show anchor, but her tenure as such has also transformed her into something much more.
Roberts, who has held the co-anchor chair at ABC’s “Good Morning America” since 2005, has grappled with many things during her tenure on the show: the death of her parents and a struggle with bone-marrow disease myelodysplastic syndrome. Her willingness to talk about parts of her private life has made her an inspirational figure to some.
Some TV executives may argue it is Roberts’ willingness to share with her viewers that has helped fuel interest in “Good Morning America,” and has certainly played some role in the program’s rise to number one.
Below, in a lightly edited interview, Roberts holds forth on the show’s freewheeling bent, her decisions to let viewers in on her personal life and the show’s story mix:
Variety: Can you remember your thoughts when “GMA” overtook “Today” in the ratings? Is the show’s first place status on your mind these days when you are doing your job?
Roberts: Never take for granted being number one. Never for a second. We don’t act that way and the sports person in me says that once you do that, you get yourself in trouble, and also the phrase my mother always said: “When you strut, you stumble.When you strut, you stumble.” I’m always thinking that. What do I remember – Wowwww. It’s a moment. I had come aboard as a general assignment correspondent in the late 90’s and became a full-time member of the family in 2002, so you take ten, twelve years to be number one? It was, ‘Wow.’ It was an event..Now it’s well known that this was the same time when I found out my diagnosis, but I can remember the feeling of that accomplishment.
Variety: What do you think defines ‘GMA’? Can you think of the segment you’ve done that best defined the show?
Roberts: It’s the fresh, spontaneous moments that are the ones people tend to remember the most. I remember when George Jefferson – Sherman Hemsley – passed away, and then coming out of the cold open was the theme song. Movin’on up…Movin’ on up….And we came out and we were singing it. Lara [Spencer] had the little church clap going. People talk about it, have been bringing it up for so long. It was totally unscripted. It’s those unscripted moments that are just the ones people really enjoy.
Variety: Is that the sort of thing “GMA” does better than anyone else?
Roberts: I guess the audience is saying so, and I mean that humbly. There’s no greater validation than the number of people who are watching us and responding to what we are doing. What works is that we tend to strike the right balance. We don’t get it right every day, but consistently we do try to get it right more often than not. It’s tricky. People don’t’ want too much doom and gloom…It’s a fine balance of giving people what they need to know. I always feel bad if someone is catching someone up and they watched us and there’s something they didn’t know, I would feel horrible, so that way in the back of my mind. I want someone going to the office, going to school and someone brings up something and they can say, “Yeah, I watched George and Robin. They were talking about it.” You want people to be informed, and then there’s a little entertainment. That doesn’t hurt, but information is at the forefront.
Variety: What do you say to people who suggest that “GMA” is more fun than it is newsy? Is that a fair or unfair assessment?
Roberts: Oh gosh, you pick up a newspaper or pick up a magazine – there are fun articles and there are heavy sections, and we are no different. I think you get out of us what it is you need…It just depends on the viewers as to what they take away, but I’m very comfortable with the mix we provide.
Variety: You have been very willing to share elements of your personal life with viewers over the years and some people will say that transparency has helped fuel the show’s popularity. Does that add an element of pressure on you to continue to tell what is happening off show, and if so how do you navigate it?
Roberts: I’ve got nothing left! (Laughs) If that’s what they are waiting for…I don’t. Everything has always happened organically, and I mean that sincerely. There’s been no master plan. Whatever it was going on in my personal life – the death of my parents, my hometown, my health, my girlfriend, all that – I decided to share just what I feel is right, and I think that is why, knock on wood, for the most part it’s been so well-received. It’s just like that in “Us” – “Just like us.” No really, and that’s how I felt, how I have shared things with people. There’s no hidden agenda.
Variety: What do you think ABC’s decision to make George its “chief anchor” and the face of breaking news says about the importance of “GMA” and morning shows?
Roberts: I think that it does send a very strong signal about the importance of morning television, and I know that George is going to work with [new ‘World News’ anchor] David Muir well. But I think it raises a lot of eyebrows. It is raising a lot of eyebrows, and any time you do something different, it’s always, “Huh?” I kind of like the fact that ABC News, and it’s across the board, we will try different things. Nothing irritates me more than when I ask somebody or anyone to do something different and they’ll say, “No.” And I always ask, “Why?” “Because we’ve never done it that way.” “Really?” Oh, oh, what is wrong with doing something differently? I think we are going back to days under Roone Arledge, when we always seemed to be trying something different, and it was like “What is going on?” But it has been well received.
Variety: You have a very energetic set. How does that affect the show, and have you ever been caught on camera laughing or reacting to something going on off camera?
Roberts: What you see is what you get. It’s not like the camera comes on and we are one way and then it goes away and we are another way, which I like. It’s so funny. Various movie stars come and it’s like they feel it. “How can you speak?” We are really wild, and it’s like, “Oh my goodness.” I think it comes across, hopefully, to the audience, hat life is messy and sometimes, yes, we will be laughing about something, but it doesn’t really matter. I just like the fact that we don’t have to think so much: “What is my character?” “When the camera comes on, who am I now?” No, it’s just the same. There’s an ease to it and I love that atmosphere. Yeah, it’s really funny. Even people who come from the other shows, they comment about it, “Wow!” Hey, welcome to ABC. This is how we roll.