Stephanopoulos finds his balance on 'Good Morning America,' ABC News

George Stephanopoulos finds his balance on 'Good Morning America' and ABC News

Every Halloween the anchors on ABC's "Good Morning America" come out from the behind their desk and try to outdo each other with wild costumes straight from the pop culture zeitgeist.

This past year Robin Roberts dressed as an elegant Elsa from "Frozen." Amy Robach was decked out as Maleficent. Ginger Zee rocked a high ponytail as pop star Ariana Grande. Lara Spencer rolled onto the show's Times Square set as Prince George in a baby carriage.

George Stephanopoulos was far more subtle. For the third year in a row, he dressed as George Clooney. His only concession to a costume this time were the Persol sunglasses Clooney wore on his wedding day in Venice, Italy.

"My kids are never happy with it," said Stephanopoulos of his Halloween performances during a recent conversation at ABC News headquarters in Manhattan. "They always want me to go much further."

Stephanopoulos still draws the line on how far he'll go when "Good Morning America" lightens up. He is aware he needs to provide the nutritious calories on a program that can at times be the TV news equivalent of a breakfast pastry array.

"I don't have to do anything I'm not comfortable with," he said. "I don't act. I'm going to be myself. I have a role on that show, and it doesn't serve me or the viewers to try to put me in a role that doesn't fit."

His effectiveness in that role was rewarded last April with a new lucrative contract said to pay him close to $10 million a year and a new title — chief anchor for ABC News. Along with his morning duties, Stephanopoulos now leads the network's coverage of major special events such as election nights, inaugurations and breaking news.

On Friday, right after the show concluded, he stayed on the air to helm ABC's special report on the Paris hostage standoff with gunmen suspected of being responsible for the bloody attack on the staff of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

"You couldn't see a better example of that role," said ABC News President James Goldston. "His experience has taught him that he is a consummate professional at live television."

Special event and breaking news coverage is traditionally handled by the evening news anchor, a job that David Muir recently took over at ABC. But as a key player on the No. 1 rated morning program that makes up a large portion of the news division's profits, Stephanopoulos was apparently able to wrangle those duties his way.

Stephanopoulos won't comment on the terms of his contract, except to say, "I got exactly what I wanted."

As a result, Stephanopoulos, 53, has entered the most fruitful period of his career at ABC News, which began 18 years ago after leaving the Clinton White House.

The former Democratic political adviser worked hard to establish his bona fides as a nonpartisan TV journalist. He rose to chief Washington correspondent and moderator of the Sunday public affairs program "This Week." When ABC News management asked him to join "Good Morning America" in 2009 to succeed Diane Sawyer, he was reluctant.

"He did not want the job," said one former ABC colleague who worked with him at the time. "I think it was because he's a very serious guy. He covered politics. 'GMA' wasn't his style."

Stephanopoulos admits "managing the emotional shifts" necessary during a typical "Good Morning America" broadcast were a challenge for him at first.

"To learn how to let go and be natural in an unnatural environment takes practice," he said. "You're dealing with breaking news that's sometimes tragic. Sometimes it's news that's going to make people angry. And then you're moving to stories that people laugh about or to consumer stories."

How did he learn to master the balancing act the job demands? "It's simply to try to be human," he said. "Not to act. Not to read. Not to project any specific idea but to react to the stories in front of you."

Stephanopoulos credits the rest of the on-air team at "Good Morning America" for helping him relax on the air. They are always ready to handle the more rollicking elements of the broadcast, so there is no need for him to go outside of his comfort zone.

Conversely, the presence of Stephanopoulos frees "Good Morning America" to be a morning fun house while still being prepared to handle the news.

"The executives at ABC News do not have to fear about what happens in a national emergency," said a rival morning show producer. "You have one of the smartest people in TV there to cover it. They have the best of all worlds. They will never get embarrassed."

Personally, Stephanopoulos has also benefited from taking up transcendental meditation a few years ago. He practices it each day after waking up at 2:30 a.m. and checking his emails.

"It's very powerful," he said. "It helps me deal with the schedule. I'm very disciplined about getting to bed between 8 and 10 p.m. There is only so much sleep you're going to get. It makes a huge difference."

It's a rigorous schedule at that. Stephanopoulos is on call afternoons to handle breaking news and works Sunday on "This Week," which has seen a significant ratings boost over the last year.

But he knows it's what he does in the morning that connects most with viewers.

"One of the things I've gotten in this job that I never appreciated before," he said, "is that people come up to you and say, 'Thank you for starting off my day in a way that makes me feel good, even when the news isn't good.'" 

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'Good Morning America'

Where: ABC

When: 7 a.m. Monday-Friday

 

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