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‘Good Morning America’ Picks New A.M. Battle: Thwarting Digital Screens

In the course of about two decades at “Good Morning America,” Robin Roberts has seen almost everything. She has flown a plane, beaten health scares and scored a historic interview with President Barack Obama in which he acknowledged a change in his attitude about marriage of same-sex couples .Even so, some things can still surprise.

For decades, when viewers woke up in the morning, they would turn on the TV to find out what happened overnight and what they needed to know for the day ahead. Now, “it’s the iPhone and Facebook and online. So the challenge is different,” said Roberts. Viewers, she realizes, “have so many more choices now.”

As ABC’s sunrise mainstay celebrates its 40th birthday Tuesday, it faces more intense competition than ever before. NBC’s “Today” program, which “GMA” usurped in April, 2012, to win first place in the ratings for the first time in 16 years, is making a comeback, and has beaten the ABC program in winning the audiences that advertisers expect for weeks, leaving some to speculate that NBC could steal back the top-ranked slot from ABC in 2016. CBS is mounting a competitive morning-news program for the first time, perhaps, since the network bumped “Captain Kangaroo” off the air in 1982. And then there are new digital information sources that are capturing the interest of a raft of viewers who in a different era might migrate more readily to “GMA’ and its brethren.

“We are trying to come up with really smart, innovative, non-shticky ways of telling stories,” said Lara Spencer, who co-anchors “GMA” along with Roberts and George Stephanopoulos. “TV is our bread and butter, but we are very aware that the world is shifting in terms of the technology, and we’ve got to keep up.”

ABC News, which produces the program, isn’t ceding ground without a fight. The network has deliberately sped up the pace of the show to give viewers more information more quickly, said James Goldston, the unit’s president. “Over the last five years, the story count has probably gone up by a third,” he said. “We are getting as much in front of our viewers as we possibly can.” In days to come, fans can expect to see scoops and stunts that producers hope will lure people who might otherwise head for the smartphone screen.

The idea is to make missing a telecast of “GMA” harder than ever. On Tuesday morning, an announcer touted “GMA” as being “live from Times Square,” where the show is broadcast from every day, and told viewers that an interview with Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump was just “moments away.” Cameras were positioned outside the studio as the candidate’s car rolled up to “GMA” studio doors and followed him as he exited the vehicle, exchanged words with onlookers and entered the broadcast center. An interview between news anchor Amy Robach and Susan Williams, the widow of actor Robin Williams, followed later in the program.

Now ABC is taking some of that programming hoopla to the web. The network has announced a 40-hour live-streaming marathon of “GMA” that will culminate in an on-air reunion of hosts old and new – think Roberts, Stephanopoulos and Spencer meeting up with everyone from David Hartman and Joan Lunden to Diane Sawyer and Spencer Christian. The event, which starts November 17 at 5 p.m., also includes a performance by One Direction and a trip to the red carpet for the premiere of the Netflix series “Jessica Jones,” one of the service’s shows based on Marvel comics also owned by ABC parent Walt Disney).

“We’re doing a lot of experimenting and pushing the boundaries of live television,” said Michael Corn, senior executive producer of “Good Morning America.” He pointed to other interesting attempts, like a visit by meteorologist Ginger Zee in May to a hidden world tucked inside a remote cave in Vietnam. The show used drones to help viewers gain access to some of the sights.

There’s reason for “GMA” to vie with new screens. More consumers are getting their news from mobile devices. Nearly half of the respondents to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center in 2014 said they used Facebook to find out about news related to politics and government, about as many as those who got similar information from local TV. At the start of 2015, Pew found 39 of the top 50 digital news websites had more traffic to their sites and associated applications coming from mobile devices than from desktop computers. The finding is a clear signal that the smartphone and mobile tablet are eating into the viewer base for traditional programs like “GMA.”

And there is money at stake. “GMA” captured about $362.9 million in advertising in 2014, according to Kantar Media, compared with $435.3 million for “Today” and $162.1 million for “CBS This Morning.” Goldston, the ABC News president, expects the show to continue to wrestle with its NBC counterpart. “We don’t belive that just because we got in front that that’s the end of the story,” he said of NBC’s recent ratings strength. “If anything, this is the challenge we expected all along.”

Things were so much simpler on this date in 1975, when “Good Morning America” debuted with David Hartman and Nancy Dussault. They were part of an effort to find something in the morning that could jockey with NBC’s long-running “Today.” ABC had launched a program called “A.M. America” earlier that year, but found little success. Instead, the network cribbed some notes from a show called “Morning Exchange” that was running on its Cleveland, Ohio, affiliate WEWS. “Exchange” opted for a softer touch: More coverage of entertainment and general interest, with news and weather on the hour and half-hour. Experts in various fields like health and travel would visit the set, which looked less like a newsroom and more like someone’s home.

Many of those elements remain. Indeed, said Stephanopoulos, keeping the “core” of “Good Morning America intact is essential to maintaining its appeal. The packaging and assembly of stories is what will bring viewers to the TV screen, he said, not revamping the format.

“GMA” has managed to keep its number-one rank despite on-air personnel shuffles. Josh Elliott and Sam Champion were part of the group when “GMA” rose to the top spot, but both have moved on, to be replaced by Robach and  Zee.

Asked about segments of the program that stand out to them, all three co-anchors pointed to heartwarming, inspirational moments. Stephanopoulos said he got a “thrill’ when Roberts returned to the program in 2013 after taking time off to get a bone marrow transplant after being diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome. Spencer recalled the time in 2014 when she got to cover a visit by six “Rosie the Riveters” – women who worked as welders and electricians during World War II, upending gender stereotypes in the process – to the White House. And Roberts has great memories of flying a T-6 training aircraft in 2003 –a plane similar to the one her father flew when serving in the U.S. Air Force.

“We get up at the crack of dawn and get into the trenches together,” said Spencer. The crew is likely to face more battles in the days and weeks to come.

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