Morning News Review - 'Good Morning America'

Thursday, July 12, 2012
[NOTE: this is the second of a five-part series critiquing morning news offerings from US broadcast and cable news providers.  It has taken me quite a while to get this piece up but I'm hoping that the other three will follow on a much quicker pace.]

SHOWGood Morning America
DATE/TIMES:  12 June 2012/0700-0730
LOCATION: Times Square Studios, New York, NY
HOSTS: Robin Roberts (co-anchor), George Stephanopoulos (co-anchor), Josh Elliott (news), Sam Champion (weather), Lara Spencer (lifestyle)
CORRESPONDENTS: Ginger Zee (Bellvue, CO), Jake Tapper (Washington, DC), Jim Avila (Bellefonte, PA); Linsey Davis (in studio), Neal Karlinsky (Seattle, WA),
GUESTS: Dr. Richard Besser (in studio)

FLOW: the show started promptly at 7AM with urgent music to highlight the pending tease of the days news events.  Roberts and Stephanopoulos traded 'teasers' for highlighted stories (wildfires in western US, a yacht hoax off the New Jersey coast, a mysterious hit-and-run incident in Los Angeles, dangers in spray tanning products) as well as updates on Commerce secretary Bryson's erratic driving over the weekend and Roberts' announcement on Monday's program that she is suffering from myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS.

Stephanopoulos began with the developing story of the morning--the out-of-control Colorado wildfires, and Ginger Zee, a member of the ABC News Extreme Weather Team, reported on activities from Bellvue, Colorado and replayed interview with fire victims.

Elliott next did a review of the morning's headline stories, which touched upon the Bryson story with Jake Tapper provided some updates on his condition and the on-going investigation, the near $50,000 drop in the net worth of average Americans between 2007 and 2010, stock market jitters over the continuing Euro debt crisis, the loss of a substantial amount of brain samples at a Massachusetts research center for autism, and the Stanley Cup victory for the Los Angeles Kings (while also plugging the network's coverage of the start of the NBA Finals later that evening).

Roberts next moved on to the latest developments in the Jerry Sandusky trial (a claim of an emotional disorder by the defense team).  Jim Avila, their reporter in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, provided an overview of the previous day's proceedings as well as an explanation by Dr. David Spiegel of histrionic personality disorder, the malady supposedly affecting the plaintiff.

Stephanopoulos turned to a boat explosion mystery that happened just off Sandy Hook, New Jersey on Monday.  Search and rescue units from several localities searched in vain for a boat (the Blind Date) with 21 people aboard that supposedly exploded and caused at least 9 injuries.  This hoax turns out to be the second time such an event was called in to rescuers in a 2-year period.

Roberts then introduced a story about a bear attack near Anchorage, Alaska where the 911 call described how the man had to feign lifelessness and then climb up a 30-foot tree to save his life. 

The next segment involved Roberts, Stephanopoulos and Dr. Richard Besser, ABC News chief health and medical editor, to discuss Roberts' MDS diagnosis--dubbed 'Robin's new fight' on the on-screen graphic, its frequency in the general population (18,000 new cases per year with 300 resulting from cancer treatments, which Roberts recently underwent for breast cancer back in 2007), and how a bone marrow transplant from her sister should help her overcome this life-threatening condition.

At approximately 7:18AM, Champion summarized several weather situations in the eastern, midwest and Great Plains regions and then introduced the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line-sponsored trivia question (sunniest US city--Yuma, Arizona with 90 percent) while forecasts for select cities were displayed.  Once completed, there was a 'teaser' for a Lady Gaga versus Madonna segment and then the Dayton affiliate cut in to provide local weather information.  They returned to the national broadcast for some additional weather information before 'teasing' for stories on the Mary Kennedy suicide, the aforementioned tanning story and a motorcycle stunt video.

From 7:20AM to 7:25AM, a slew of national and local commercials ran until the start of the local news, stocks and weather spot.  Once completed, more commercials aired until the return to the national feed (starting off with that motorcycle video) at 7:30AM.

BACKGROUND: As I admitted in my piece on Today, I am not a frequent watcher of its competitors and my comments and critiques on Good Morning America and the other shows will only apply to what I saw on that day's broadcast.  I do remember a short period of time when I might have watched GMA when we were stationed overseas or when I visited such locations on temporary duty.  Back in those days, the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, or AFRTS, only had one television outlet to show American programming to viewers at those installations and surrounding communities.  When GMA surpassed Today in the morning ratings race in the early 1990s, network managers decided to replace the NBC show with the ABC one and kept it there until Today retook the top spot several years later.  The upgrade to digital broadcasting has removed this 'one or the other' decision and both programs are featured on the various satellite channels of the American Forces Network.

Good Morning America's Charlie Gibson, Joan Lunden and Spencer Christian in a July 1988 ABC  promotional photo for the network's political convention coverage

The ensemble I remember from those shows was Joan Lunden and Charlie Gibson as the co-anchors with Spencer Christian doing the weather (I honestly can't recall who the news person was but several names--Forrest Sawyer, Mike Schneider, Kathleen Sullivan, Paula Zahn--sound familiar).  When overseas, we were stationed in Italy and England and GMA would come on live in the early afternoon (there is a 5-hour time difference between Eastern Standard Time and the UK and a 6-hour difference and central Europe for most of the year).  While it was better watching it in real-time (compared to the Today 7-day delay in Japan), it just didn't have the same feel as it would have at an earlier time of day (we used to watch a British morning show, The Big Breakfast, that aired in the more traditional 7-9AM timeslot).  When we returned to the US, choices were available again and I migrated back to NBC.

Dueling ratings ploys in early April demonstrated the desire by both Good Morning America and Today to be the top-rated morning news show on television

Fortunes can rise and well as fall and GMA did drop from the top spot in December 1995 and served as the 'Avis' of morning news programming to Today's 'Hertz' until just a few months ago when the ABC show snapped a 16-year streak of second-place finishes to their NBC rival.  Some gimmickry may have been employed to accomplish this (former Today anchor Katie Couric was brought in to guest host for Roberts the week of April 1st; her former show countered by bringing in former Alaskan governor--and current Fox News Channel contributor--Sarah Palin on air for a one-day stint on April 3rd to make their audience stay put and perhaps bring some of her fans along with her) and both are now locked in a pitched battle for the hearts and minds--and remotes--of American television viewers that has cost at least one person, Ann Curry, their job.

CRITIQUE:  Some of these items may sound familiar but that is because I am reviewing a near carbon-copy of the format that Today introduced over 60 years ago.  Due to my familiarity with that other show, this will serve as a direct comparison to it.

The focus:  Like Today, GMA is 'frontloaded' to put as much information into its first 20-minute segment with the other 'softer' items featured in its final 90 minutes (the total broadcast time is two hours on weekdays and one hour on the weekends).  I only evaluated the first half-hour of that day's program.  Starting on July 9th, ABC will be running Good Afternoon America at 2PM to fill air time  for a cancelled talk show (The Revolution) through early September.  It will focus on that previously identified 'softer' category of programming and be recorded right after the morning telecast.  Elliott and Spencer will serve as the co-hosts for the hour-long show.
The hosts:  Like Today, we see GMA using a male-female co-anchor format with a dedicated news and weather person.  Roberts, a communications major in college, started her professional career as a sportscaster for local radio and television outlets before landing a position on ESPN's Sportscenter in 1990.  She moved on to news and feature reporting with ABC and GMA in 1995 before assuming the news anchor for the show in 2002 and elevation to co-anchor responsibilities in 2005.  Stephanopoulos, by contrast, traveled a non-journalism route to his current role.  As the holder of a divinity degree, he delved into politics during Michael Dukakis' failed 1988 presidential bid and eventually made his way to Bill Clinton's successful campaign just four years later, serving as a de facto press secretary and policy advisor before resigning at the end of the president's first term in office.  He joined ABC News as a political correspondent and was named GMA co-host in 2009 (he also hosts the network's Sunday political affairs program This Week).  Elliott, a Columbia School of Journalism graduate, is another former ESPN host to land in the ABC News family with Champion, a trained journalist but not a meteorologist, rounding out the primary on-screen positions.  Unlike the NBC show, GMA has a "lifestyle" anchor (Spencer, a communications major and competitive diver while attending the Pennsylvania State University) who is tasked with covering "family, parenting, health, fitness and work/life balance" issues, presumably to allow Roberts and Stephanopoulos to avoid the kind of 'awkard' situations that presumably did in their rival Curry.

The 'aesthetics':  Again, this is a deliberately vague rating area that I break down into the following three components for simplicity's sake.

The outside of GMA's Times Square Studio (2009 photo courtesy of Miguelno)

The set:  Like Today, GMA is a New York City-based show and it tries to incorporate the city into its overall image. The broadcast comes from the Times Square Studios located at 1500 Broadway, a 34-story skyscraper sitting at the intersection of Broadway and West 44th Street in Manhattan.  This setting has been used by other ABC shows in the past, to include 20/20 and Primetime, and is currently shared with Nightline, the network's New Years Eve telecasts, and ESPN NBA updates.  Although not seen in my viewing period, there are large windows that let outsiders peer in to the studio.  Other portions of their set include a kitchen, an obligatory couch, and other furnishings for group sessions and facilitating more intimate interviews.  Since those areas were not shown when I watched, I cannot offer a valid critique on their overall design or color schemes.  Unlike their NBC rival, GMA's musical concerts are conducted at the Rumsey Playfield in the city's Central Park instead of right outside their studio.  This decision, which is probably due to the limited area and security concerns in and around Times Square, allows for the audience to see those acts in a more concert-friendly setting than being squeezed between buildings in and around Rockefeller Center.

The graphicsGMA transitioned to high-definition in November 2005 and utilizes its 'extra' screen space with a continuous news ticker (seen above) that runs along the bottom edge (our ABC affiliate does not superimpose its own information so I was able to see the national feed).  In the span of about five minutes, I was able to read 37 separate updates on newsworthy issues from national, international, business, entertainment and sports sources.  While a few mirrored what was covered more in-depth by the anchors, the vast majority were items that would only merit a one- or two-paragraph mention in a daily newspaper.  While considered 'minor' news, the ticker feature gives the viewer a broader sense of what is actually going on in those segments and better prepares them for 'water cooler' conversations later in their day.  During the local news segment, the affiliate ran its own ticker to keep viewers up-to-date on issues in the Dayton area and Miami Valley region.  The local ABC station currently broadcasts in standard definition but it announced late last year about consolidating its operations location with sister Fox station (WRGT) and upgrading its newscasts to a digital, high-definition format in 2012.

The 'atmosphere':  With a relatively new grouping of on-air personalities (Elliott joined the show and Spencer returned to the program in 2011), GMA has been developing their own 'brand' of morning news and information within the industry's 'infotainment' standard.  With several of the on-air hosts having non-news related backgrounds, the result is an eclectic blending of talent that appears to be winning over viewers and perhaps developing a loyal following of fans. Although I rarely watch, everyone appeared to work well together (I did not see Spencer during my 30-minute stay) and seemed to have a genuine concern for their coworkers, especially for Roberts who had just announced her latest health issue on the previous day's program.  With their current ratings wins (and the shake-up over at NBC), this success could give them the confidence to make their recent rise a lasting plateau instead of a short-term peak to again drop back behind Today.

The 'messaging':  While there were no political news items reported during my 'peek-in', having George Stephanopoulos as a co-anchor causes some in the media to immediately assign a liberal bias to GMA and to ABC News in general.  While he did serve as a former Clinton advisor and also hosts the network's Sunday morning political roundtable show, he claims that he is an "independent journalist" and a progressive media 'watch dog' has documented numerous instances of him supposedly showing too much deference to his conservative guests in spite of obvious 'spinning' of widely known information.  I would have to devote more viewing time in order to form a valid opinion on this issue.

OVERALL: As I said in my first installment of this series, I am a creature of habit and my initial choice for a morning news program will probably be Today.  With that being said, I was impressed with what I saw from GMA and, if directly compared to the NBC offering, I can see how it has been able to catch up with its main competitor for viewers that specific format tries so hard to attract.  Being a person who wants to keep tabs with the media, I may have to force myself to drop in more often in the future to build up a more comprehensive familiarity with the show and its personnel.

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