While the rest of New York was starting its weekend, Kelly Ripa was getting ready to head back to work. The “Live! With Kelly and Michael” co-host sent an email to staffers late Friday evening confirming that she would return to the show on Tuesday. The move was a major step toward steadying “Live,” which slid into chaos last week after ABC announced that co-host Michael Strahan would leave for “Good Morning America” and Ripa subsequently went AWOL.
“I wanted to thank you all for giving me the time to process this new information,” Ripa wrote. “Your kindness, support, and love has overwhelmed me. We are a family and I look forward to seeing you all on Tuesday morning.”
Two sources close to the show told Variety that Ripa’s email came after ABC executives — the news division is responsible for “GMA,” while the syndication arm handles “Live” — worked to repair relations in the wake of the botched Strahan-to-“GMA” announcement. Ripa was angered when she and executive producer Michael Gelman were told of Strahan’s move just before ABC announced it publicly, then did not come to work the next day. As the week progressed and Ripa maintained her distance from the show, ABC execs — including WABC’s Dave Davis, Rebecca Campbell of ABC’s owned stations group and ABC news chief James Goldston — reached out to Ripa to apologize for the way the announcement was handled.
They also reaffirmed ABC’s commitment to “Live” amid rumors that the network wanted to kill the show and replace it with a third hour of “GMA.” Such a move would be logistically difficult because of affiliate commitments. It would also be a huge financial gamble, as “Live” pulls in $85-90 million per year in estimated ad revenue and license fees.
“Pretty Little Liars” star Shay Mitchell — the third “Live” guest co-host in the last four episodes — sat in Monday for Ripa, who had already planned a weekend wedding anniversary trip with husband Mark Consuelos prior to the Strahan announcement. By contacting staff Friday night, she cleared the issue from her plate before the weekend and set herself up to return to “Live” with a massive amount of leverage.
Although ABC this year renewed “Live” through 2020, Ripa’s contract expires at the end of the 2016-17 season. With Strahan departing and little time to find and groom his replacement before Ripa’s deal blows up, Ripa holds the show’s future in her hands. If ABC can incentivize her to stay, “Live” likely carries on as the No. 2 rated syndicated show in daytime. If it cannot, it risks watching suitors line up to woo her to a place where she would compete with Strahan and “GMA” or another of ABC’s daytime franchises.
When Ripa returns Tuesday morning, expect cordiality between her and Strahan. “Live” sources told Variety that the two spoke over the weekend, and that Strahan also received apologies from ABC execs over the mishandling of what should have been a celebratory moment for him.
But regardless of how mended Ripa and Strahan’s relationship is, the prospect of the two hosting “Live” together until Strahan moves to “GMA” in September — the original plan laid out by ABC — now looks remote. A more likely scenario would see Strahan make an earlier exit from the show, then take time off before joining “GMA” full-time and resuming his fall football-analyst duties on “Fox NFL Sunday.” That would allow ABC to get started sooner on finding Strahan’s “Live” replacement, a process that will involve multiple guest co-hosts auditioning on-air alongside Ripa and one that will take several months.
If ABC drags its feet through that process, it risks the show-killing possibility of watching Strahan’s replacement walk in the door just as Ripa heads out of it.