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Courtesy of ABC News

Live, from New York – it’s “Good Morning America”?

ABC is set to launch a new era at its flagship morning program as it seeks to differentiate itself from rivals and grapples with viewership declines.  When Michael Strahan, the seemingly ubiquitous talk-show host and sports commentator, joins “GMA” full time on September 6th, the program will add a live audience to its last half hour and also potentially use some of its hosts in new ways.

“GMA” remains the nation’s most-watched morning program, but NBC’s “Today” now dominates the audience most coveted by advertisers and CBS’ “CBS This Morning” has notched ratings gains.  “This is the longest race in the world. There is no finish line in this race,” said Michael Corn, senior executive producer of “Good Morning America,” in an interview. The program brings in millions of dollars in advertising revenue to ABC, and fetched nearly $405.5 million for the network last year, according to Kantar Media. “We are always looking to make the show more informative, more interesting, more entertaining to our viewers,” said Corn.

Starting next Thursday during the last half hour of the program, “GMA” hosts will move to a new set that has been constructed on the second floor of the show’s Times Square studio, and interact with approximately 100 audience members. The format will allow “GMA” hosts like Lara Spencer, Strahan and others to interact with a crowd, and create a more energetic atmosphere, said Corn. “With an audience, it’s a lot looser in terms of how we can use our anchors.”

Imagine, he suggested, chef Emeril Lagasse cooking for 100 people instead of two or three hosts. The live crowd, he said, is designed to help “GMA” capitalize on the types of stories it typically presents as it moves away from a harder news focus in its 7 a.m. hour. “It’s a little more news you can use, a little more lifestyle, and those are the subjects that lend themselves to a live audience,” he said.

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Viewers may notice other possible tweaks to the program as Strahan, who has been a semi-regular member of the “GMA” team since 2014, joins the morning franchise full-time after a controversial departure from his duties co-hosting the syndicated program “Live” with Kelly Ripa.

Robin Roberts, George Stephanopoulos and Strahan are likely to open “GMA” most mornings. News anchor Amy Robach could appear more frequently in the show’s first hour, when a focus on news is more dominant, while co-anchor Lara Spencer could be featured during the program’s second half, where producers hope to build a rapport between her, Strahan and the new live audience. The whole on-air crew will appear across the program, said Corn, and the show will continue to test new ideas and new ways to deploy its anchors.

The moves suggest ABC is relying on “Good Morning America’s” populist roots to help it gain an edge over the hard-news branding touted by CBS’ morning program and the multiple hats worn by NBC’s “Today.” The ABC program was always meant to stretch beyond news updates, and since its launch in 1975 has placed a greater emphasis on topics like health, travel and entertainment. On the set, “GMA” can be a raucous affair: Music is piped in over speakers, even when the show is on the air, while dozens of crew members and guests ranging from Robin Roberts’ stylist to fans right off the street mill about behind the scenes. In contrast, “Today” and “CBS This Morning” sport more austere trappings.

After usurping NBC’s years-long dominance in the time slot in 2012, ABC has seen its lead erode. Season to date as of the week of August 16, the overall viewership for “Good Morning America” has fallen 9%, while viewers between 25 and 54 are off 13%, according to Nielsen. During Corn’s tenure, which commenced in 2014, the show has burnished efforts to show viewers things they can’t see elsewhere, like meteorologist Ginger Zee jumping out of a plane 13,000 feet over the ground, or a 24-hour live stream showing 100 different couples getting married around the globe. Strahan’s arrival and the addition of a live audience will augment that, Corn said.

There will be times when “GMA” will not use the live crowd. When the nation is focused on difficult news or serious stories, “GMA” will do what it normally does, presenting two hours of ABC News reports on the topic at hand, whether it be a terrorist attack or Presidential election, Corn said. Stephanopoulos, who also serves as ABC News’ chief anchor, would likely handle much of the on-air duties related to such stories, but Roberts and Strahan will have responsibilities as well that suit their strengths. On Mondays, during football season, Strahan is likely not to be on set, giving him time to travel back to New York from sports-broadcast duties he continues to perform for Fox Sports.

“GMA” has long had a live audience of sorts, but it usually consisted of people glancing at the broadcast through the ground-floor windows of its Times Square facility. Occasionally, passers-by and fans are invited in to watch the show on set. And “GMA” has occasionally held “town halls” that let audience members interview politicians, or contests or musical performances that depend on the energy of a live crowd to lend the show a visual boost.

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Viewers can continue to see “GMA” venture outside the confines of its Manhattan broadcast, said Corn. Robach and Zee will still travel to interesting places around the world and the show will still make us of the crowds outside its facility in New York City’s midtown. “The more live, the better,” he said.

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