ABC’s Morning Madness: Will Michael Strahan Blitz Score Touchdowns for ‘GMA,’ ‘Live’?

Analysis: With one bold move, Disney and ABC bring new risks to two big morning franchises

Live with Kelly & Michael Ratings
Courtesy of ABC

With “Good Morning America’s” ratings leadership in extreme danger of being tackled by NBC’s “Today,”  executives at ABC have come up with something that looks great on paper – adding more of Michael Strahan, the former football player who has transformed himself into one of the most winning personalities on today’s TV screen.

Now, what happens if someone drops the ball?

It’s not Strahan’s game to lose, but ABC’s. To goose their morning bauble, which snared more than $405.5 million in advertising last year, according to ad-spending tracker Kantar, executives at ABC News are stirring more celebrity into the mix at a time when the A.M. shows burnishing their news credentials (hello, “CBS This Morning”) are rising in the ratings, or at least getting more of the morning audience advertisers want (“Today”). In the process, the company is risking another franchise, the syndicated stalwart “Live,” which depends on the good will of TV-station general managers across the country to keep it alive. Those executives just found out – as the rest of the industry did – that Strahan will, come September, no longer be on a popular program that was recently renewed through 2020.

ABC has reason for making the move. As winning as the on-air team at “Good Morning America” is, it isn’t the group that brought home the prize in 2012 for the Walt Disney-owned network. For various reasons, Josh Elliott and Sam Champion, seen as an integral part of the “GMA” mix when it usurped the toast-and-eggs TV title from “Today” after a 16-year streak, left the show for other ventures. ABC has periodically tweaked the team ever since – giving a new title to Lara Spencer, a spotlight to news anchor Amy Robach and lots of camera time to meteorologist Ginger Zee.

None of that has stopped NBC from making A.M. strides. “Today” has won among the viewers most coveted by advertisers – people between 25 and 54 – for months, a dynamic that should bring more advertising money to the Peacock program. At NBCUniversal, according to a person familiar with the situation, the Strahan maneuver is being viewed as a reaction to “Today’s” success, and executives at the Comcast-owned media giant have hopes that “Today” can completely surpass “GMA” in weeks to come.

One challenge ABC has is that is cannot manufacture life situations for the “GMA” crew that win viewers’ hearts. There’s no question that two different health crises affecting Robin Roberts – a gripping battle with myelodysplastic syndrome in late 2012 and early 2013 – and Amy Robach – a fight with breast cancer in 2013 – stirred the emotions of the audience and transformed the anchors into inspirations. That sort of thing, however, isn’t part of business-planning meetings.

Strahan could serve as a different sort of buoying mechanism. His appeal is undisputed. His TV purview now extends from commentary for Fox Sports and his time on “Live” to a twice-a-week stint on “GMA” and the face of a Nickelodeon kids-and-sports awards franchise. He could bring more men to the “GMA” orbit and no doubt fuel the broadcast’s second hour, when the anchors wander further into lifestyle topics and farther from the news of the day.

What will he take from “Live”? The show has thrived during his time with Kelly Ripa, whose absence on Wednesday’s broadcast of the program, raised questions about whether she welcomed the change.  No matter. The secret to “Live” is its low production costs. The morning-news crew from WABC, which produces the program, simply turn around after their local duties and work on “Live,” which has been led for years by executive producer Michael Gelman.  Expect “Live” to return to the state it had when Regis Philbin departed in 2011: Months of pairing Ripa with would-be male hosts in search of the one who sparks the best rapport.

Meantime, Strahan’s placement at “GMA” could spark questions.  For as many segments about “Deals and Steals” it offers, “GMA” is still part of ABC News. Will Strahan be the desk at 7:00 a.m. to talk about terrorist attacks or the Presidential campaign?

“GMA” still touts hard-news credentials at the top of the show, and recently ran a multi-segment town hall with Republican Presidential candidate Ted Cruz. Indeed, in recent weeks it has appeared to have borrowed a page from “Today,” which has set Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie at the opening of the program in order to spark a sense of immediacy with viewers. Natalie Morales and Al Roker surface a few minutes later. At “GMA,” where a shot of the entire team at the desk used to be the norm for the open, Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos now hold forth and open the show with news. Lara Spencer joins at the quarter-hour.

If Strahan has a bigger role in the show’s first half hour, it could lend “GMA” a schizophrenic air. Is it a news show or an entertainment program? (The answer: It’s both). This is the dilemma that hurt “Today” back in 2012, when it struggled to win back viewers following the on-air ouster of Ann Curry and began trying to emulate the things at “GMA” that drew viewers.  “Today” wanted to be all things to all people, and NBC paid the price for its uncertainty.

Finding that inner core seems to be paramount. No one will tell you that either “GMA” or “Today” is the most somber of ventures. Once viewers get beyond the first half hour, the celebrity interviews and social-media demonstrations get more play. Like Coca-Cola and Pepsi, the two morning programs are essentially the same brown, fizzy liquid loaded into two very different packages.  With that in mind, the wrapping is important. With Strahan, ABC seems to be choosing brighter colors for the program.

Michael Strahan has fast become a franchise. So, too, are “GMA” and “Live.” Disney’s move to bolster one against NBC’s ratings challenge carries risks for both.