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ABC Replacing Kelly Ripa’s ‘Live’ with Another Hour of ‘Good Morning America’? Don’t Bet On It

The drama that erupted behind the scenes this week on “Live with Kelly and Michael” has stirred renewed speculation about ABC’s interest in expanding “Good Morning America” to a third hour at 9 a.m. That hour at present is occupied on the ABC O&Os and many ABC affiliate stations by “Live.”

But would Disney deliberately dismantle an enduring a.m. franchise that generates an estimated $85 million-$90 million annually in license fees and advertising revenue? That’s hard to imagine in any rational scenario.

ABC brass are taking lumps for ham-fisted talent relations in the way they broke the news to Kelly Ripa that her co-host of the past four years, Michael Strahan, will be heading to “GMA” full time as of the fall. Ripa expressed her displeasure with the decision by sitting out the rest of this week’s “Live” broadcasts, leading to some awkward on-air moments for all involved.

The Ripa rift has led to a lot of snickers and second-guessing within ABC and Disney. But Disney/ABC TV Group chief Ben Sherwood and his team would have to be truly nuts to table a sure-thing in “Live” — which has been renewed by its 238 affiliate stations nationwide through the 2019-20 season — in favor of an untested new hour of “GMA” at a time of fierce competition in the morning show wars.

The hurdles for ABC to take over the 9 a.m. hour on its 200-plus affiliate stations for an extra hour of “GMA” are significant. But more important, pursuing such an effort would break a cardinal rule of television: If something is working, don’t break it. And “Live,” by any measure, is a workhorse for Disney.

The removal of Strahan flies in the face of the don’t-mess-with-success mantra, but “Live’s” past precedent indicates that the show can weather turnover at the host desk. Ripa succeeded Kathie Lee Gifford in 2001; Strahan replaced the show’s founding host, Regis Philbin, in 2012 after Ripa went through nearly a year of on-air guest hosts before finding the right match.

“Live” is appointment TV for about 4 million viewers for the season to date, and the vast majority of its affiliate stations run the show at 9 a.m., coming out of national or local news programs. Moving the show even by an hour on ABC’s O&Os could easily disrupt a viewer routine that “Live” has developed over decades. Monkeying with that habit would be the TV equivalent of ABC shooting itself in the remote control. Never underestimate the importance of strong a.m. ratings on affiliate stations to help power a network’s primetime’s performance. The morning audience feeds into the afternoon and early evening newscasts which flow into primetime — this remains the natural order of things for broadcast networks and their affiliates, despite the multiplatform viewing revolution.

“Live” is often mistaken for an ABC network program but in fact it is syndicated by Disney/ABC TV Group’s first-run distribution arm. The show is carried by various affiliates of the Big Four networks across the country. All of those stations pay license fees for the show to Disney, and they hand over a few minutes of the advertising time in each hour, allowing Disney to market those spots as a national ad buy.

The vast majority of “Live” stations run the show at 9 a.m., coming out of local or national morning news programs — the perfect fit with “Live’s” breezy mix of host chat about the headlines, celebrity guests and lifestyle segments. The show is produced out of WABC-TV New York using that station’s facilities and crew, which makes it an extremely cost-effective production for Disney.

“Live” at present is the No. 2 ranked daytime talk show, close behind “Dr. Phil” in total viewers for the season to date. In women 25-54, the key daytime demo, the show draws a 1.4, tied with Ellen DeGeneres’ yakker and just a tenth of a point behind “Dr. Phil.” In women 18-49 it pulls a 1.0 for the season to date, just a hair behind “Dr. Phil.” “Live’s” numbers are impressive given that “Dr. Phil” and “Ellen” typically air in afternoon time slots when the overall number of people watching television is larger than in the morning.

Meanwhile, for ABC to expand to a third hour of “GMA” would require enlisting all of its affiliate stations to clear the 9 a.m. hour for network programming. That would not be an easy process as many of those stations have long-term commitments to existing shows such as “Live” and other syndicated hits. It would likely require serious horse-trading between the network and affiliates.

For all these reasons and more, ABC reps should be taken at their word when they insist that “Live” isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. That’s as much of a certainty as the fact that ABC has just handed Ripa a truckload of leverage for negotiating a new deal to succeed her existing contract, which is believed to run through the 2016-17 season. Knowledgable industry sources say those discussions will begin sooner rather than later, probably as soon as Ripa returns to the “Live” set as expected next week.

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