The ABC morning program is many things all at once. It’s a news program. It’s a pillar of the economics of ABC’s parent Walt Disney. And increasingly these days, it is a broader media entity that spans TV and digital and more. “Everything is about the audience and the energy of live,” says Michael Corn, the program’s senior executive broadcast producer. “We’re a live event every morning.”
Roberts has been with the show since 2005, and has pivoted with a bevy of format changes over that period of time. As part of Variety’s cover story this week about the pace of transformation in TV’s morning programs, Roberts agreed to discuss how she keeps pace with new developments. Below, in a lightly edited interview conducted in the “GMA” green room just minutes after she greeted the show’s second-hour in- studio audience, she discusses how she works her way through whatever new wrinkle comes her way.
Variety: Since you’ve been an anchor on the show, you’ve worked with Charles and Diane, you’ve had the ‘family’ set up and now you have the trio. How do you roll with all the different changes?
Roberts: I think my background helps. My dad was in the Air Force, so we moved around a lot. I had to make new friends like every three years. Being an athlete and being on a team and understanding that different players come in. …I’m not someone who is fearful of change. I think when there is change, our uncertainty it means there are endless possibilities. You keep the good from what you had with the people who you were with and you build on that with the new. I’m just glad I’m the ‘X-factor’ in all of this. I’m happy to be included with all the groups you’ve just mentioned.
Variety: Have you had to develop new muscles for the live studio audience?
Roberts: It is learning new muscles. Before, you would just be, in a sense, with the crew members and the television camera. There was a group of women, they were trying to get tickets. They were from Israel, and they have been trying to get tickets for as long as we’ve had the studio audience and they were so excited they could finally be here. You draw off that….You really draw energy from them and even though it is the same information and material, if you will, the audience is different. It comes across a little bit different. I love the energy. It’s the athlete in me playing in front of a stadium.
Variety: This show won the ratings crown from “Today” in 2012, and now looks nothing like that program. Even the position of your anchor desk has been changed in the studio. But “GMA” is still the most-watched morning show. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
Roberts: Well, it wasn’t broken and it wasn’t like we were trying to fix anything… They are watching us on their mobile. They are watching us on their iPad. They are DVRing us and watching us later in the day. I always thought about watching “Good Morning America” at midnight, but God bless them if they do,. The fact that we have a digital footprint is just bigger than it was 12 years ago. I was one of those that went kicking and screaming into social media I remember [ABC News President] James Goldston saying, ‘You have to join social media,’ and I didn’t want to for various reasons. I’m like, if any of my friends want to know how I am they can turn on the TV and see how I am doing. I realized it is a wonderful way to engage with the audience, and in some ways it is the only way they really consume you and take your product. I’d be the first one to say I was reluctant, but now I enjoy it very much and the following that I have and I appreciate it.
Variety: I interviewed David Hartman for this story, and he says he saw very few format changes at “GMA” once he was paired with Joan Lunden. Are you now primed to expect a big change every couple of years?
Roberts: We don’t change for the sake of change, but I think about David and I think about that time, and it was a different time and people didn’t really want change. I will say this though – when I first started dong morning television, that was the credo. There was resistance to change. We didn’t want to change anything. Now see where we are. We are taking our cue from the public. We are taking our cue from how we live our lives now. We respect our history and we revere that, but we still want to remain relevant. So you can’t just live in the past, and I think we do a great job of honoring our past and celebrating it, but it’s not just telling people what’s new, it’s also telling them what’s next, and I like that.
Variety: How do you feel the tone of morning television has changed?
Roberts: We are shot out of a cannon now. It used to be it was kind of like a little crescendo. But knowing when people wake up and they turn us on in any way they see us. They can get their information in so many places, Our challenge is to find something new within the story and what’s next in that story they have been following. There is a whole different pace at 7 o’clock. It moves. There are some people who only watch us for those first 20 minutes before they are out the door. We want to make sure they have all the pertinent information to share that they need at that time. I call it controlled chaos…It is fast paced, but is indicative of what we are seeing in the world today.
Variety: Are viewers OK with a less formal presentation?
Roberts: Yeah, I think so. We have a younger audience that is watching us and the way they go about their lives and the way they consumer media you have to stay relevant. I know that we are very in tune to what our audience is turning in for…. It’s being straightforward in our presentation. That’s never going to change.
Variety: You surprised some people in 2017 when you finished off an item about Omarosa Manigault-Newman leaving the White House by saying, “Bye, Felicia.” Were you taken aback by the reaction to it?
Roberts: I remember so many people from both sides of the aisle reached out to me saying ‘Who’s Felicia?’ That’s not how I normally react, but I don’t think there was anything in particular that made me say it. I wasn’t trying to make it something at the time, but it was a moment.
Variety: If you had to guess where morning shows will be five or ten years from now, what would you say?
Roberts: I would not have known when I started as a regular in 2005 that we would be in front of a live studio audience, and that we would have the pace that we have, that we would have the story count and the number of stories and types of stories we do. I have no idea of what will happen in five or ten years. I think we are going to take what’s working and what’s good and what people like. We will keep that and we will tinker with whatever it feels like is going to serve the audience best.