ABC's good sport

Times Staff Writer

IF "Good Morning America" co-anchor Robin Roberts needs a reminder about what's at stake in her new job, there's one staring at her every morning through the window of the show's Times Square studio.

Ever since Roberts moved from the news desk to the anchor desk in May, she's had an unobstructed view of the competition: NBC's "Today" show, playing on a giant screen hanging off a building across the street.

The sight could feel like a taunt from the top-rated show as second-place "Good Morning America" seeks to knock it off its perch. But Roberts, a college athlete-turned-sportscaster before she joined "Good Morning America," said she's not fazed by the proximity of her rivals.

"Every once in a while you'll look out and see what they're doing, but something I learned from playing sports is you don't concern yourself with the competition as much," said the 44-year-old former ESPN anchor. "I like us to compete against ourselves."

That may be, but the producers of "Good Morning America" are acutely aware of the competition -- and the fact that they've edged closer to "Today" this year than in almost a decade but still haven't managed to overtake the longtime ratings leader. This spring, ABC News executives bumped Roberts from newsreader to co-anchor along with Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer, hoping that Roberts' brand of teasing banter and her matter-of-fact, folksy tone rooted in her Mississippi upbringing would finally help push the program over the top.

The morning show's executive producer Ben Sherwood said Roberts has a "relatable" quality that was on full display during her coverage of Hurricane Katrina, which severely damaged her hometown of Pass Christian, Miss. At one point, after learning her mother and sister were safe in Biloxi, she wept on air -- a moment that triggered an outpouring of sympathy from viewers.

Becoming the No. 1 morning news show means bragging rights and, more important, big bucks for the networks. Dislodging the Katie Couric/Matt Lauer-hosted "Today" show won't be easy; while ABC has narrowed the gap between the two shows since last year, "Today" has won the largest morning audience for almost 10 years straight, a streak NBC is determined to continue. When "Good Morning America" began gaining on its rival last spring, NBC Universal Television Group President Jeff Zucker fired "Today's" executive producer and brought in a new team to run the show.

" 'Today' has tremendous advantage," said Steve Friedman, a former executive producer of "Today" and CBS' "The Early Show." "It's like Kleenex, Crest, Jell-O -- it's the brand name of morning television." And with new executives in place, he added, "they've got a new fighting spirit."

In September, "Today" averaged 622,000 more viewers than its rival, according to Nielsen Media Research, despite the return of ABC prime-time hits like "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost," which were expected to lift "Good Morning America's" ratings with their readily available stars. Still, the margin between the two shows is substantially less than it was in September 2004, when NBC was ahead by more than 1 million viewers. And last week, "Good Morning America" came within 150,000 viewers of "Today," the closest it has been since May.

Many factors affect the ebb and flow of the ratings, but network executives agree that the chemistry between the anchors is one of the most important ingredients. By all accounts, Roberts' move to the anchor desk has been received warmly by those involved -- no small feat in an industry known for its outsized egos. Quick with wry ad-libs, she has developed a joking repartee with her co-hosts that the network hopes will wear well with morning audiences.

"Robin has a comfort on air that just comes to her naturally," Gibson wrote in an e-mail. "She has fit in from the day she arrived."

But after spending two decades as a sportscaster, Roberts said it has taken her some time to adjust to her new role.

"It's not that I felt nervous here, but it was not quite in my comfort zone," she said as she sat in a production office outside the studio after a recent broadcast, having replaced her brown heels with fuzzy blue slippers.

'Triangle offense'

Shortly before 7 on a recent gray morning, Roberts and Gibson sat next to each other in the warmly lighted studio, prepping for the broadcast as a nearly empty Times Square began blinking to life through the window behind them.

A few minutes before airtime, Roberts did a promo for the New York ABC affiliate, telling the local anchor that Gibson had been chortling about the Yankees' loss the night before.

Gibson looked up, alarmed: "Now I've got 3 million Yankees fans hating me!"

"Oh well, the truth hurts, doesn't it?" Roberts replied breezily, laughing as her co-host leaned across the desk with mock menace.

She often plays the role of a younger sister with Gibson, good-humoredly needling him throughout the broadcast. Roberts and Sawyer have their own dynamic, kidding around on air with the intimacy of two close friends, often at the expense of their befuddled male co-host.

"It does mix it up, because sometimes she'll take on the role of putting frogs in Charlie's shoes and sometimes I will," joked Sawyer, describing Roberts as a "combination of wicked wit and absolutely saintly spirit."

Roberts' promotion has given "Good Morning America" some much-needed flexibility at a time when ABC News is undergoing a major transition: settling on a permanent successor for "World News Tonight" anchor Peter Jennings, who died of lung cancer in August. Gibson, who is considered one of the front-runners for the post, regularly serves as a substitute anchor on the evening news, frequently doing both shows in one day. When he needs a day off, Sawyer and Roberts serve as co-hosts without him.

"I like to think of this as our triangle offense, and it gives you so many powerful ways to score, especially as we really get closer and closer to NBC," Sherwood said.

Network television analyst Andrew Tyndall said Roberts contributes to the show's ensemble approach, even if she has yet to prove her credentials as a tough journalist. While she conducts many of the program's celebrity and human-interest interviews, Roberts has yet to make a name for herself with a hard-hitting back-and-forth with a major national leader.

"I don't think she's got many great skills as an interviewer, but she is really good, coming from ESPN, at thinking on her feet and reacting to images," Tyndall said. "She brings that sporting background of joking and being part of a gang, and that's exactly the atmosphere they're trying to create."

Roberts isn't the first to make the transition from sports to morning news. Bryant Gumbel worked for NBC Sports before anchoring "Today" for 15 years, as did Hannah Storm, now co-anchor of CBS' "The Early Show."

Sports defined Roberts at an early age. After graduating from Southeastern Louisiana University, where she was a star basketball player, she turned down an offer to be a morning news anchor to take a part-time weekend sports anchor job in Hattiesburg, Miss., for $5.50 an hour. She eventually got similar gigs in Biloxi, Nashville and Atlanta. At every station, she was offered the chance to anchor the news. Every time, she turned it down.

"To me that was a J-O-B," she said. "For me, sports never felt like work. I just felt like I was stealing money, it was such a joy and such a passion."

In 1990, she made it to ESPN, where she was the first African American woman anchor. Hired to host the overnight "Sports-Center" show, she was soon anchoring the evening broadcast and Sunday "SportsDay," doing play-by-play for various sports and helping cover the Olympics.

"She had a spirit and a style to her, and developed credibility with the sports fan that I think helped pave the way for future female anchors in sports," said John Walsh, senior vice president and executive editor of ESPN Inc. and of the ESPN Internet Group.

The opportunities to do news continued -- this time at ABC, a sister network of the Disney-owned sports channel. In the mid-1990s, Roberts began substituting as a weekend anchor on "Good Morning America," working as a contributor to the morning show and filling in occasionally for Jennings. In 2002, she was tapped to be the show's newsreader.

But she continued her ESPN work on the side -- until May, when ABC News President David Westin asked her to join the anchor desk. She was excited but wistful. This is the first fall Roberts won't be covering football.

"It was so hard for me to leave the sports world, because it was all I had every known," she said.

Her ambivalence disappeared with Hurricane Katrina. She arrived in Louisiana the day after the storm to cover the devastation, the scope of which was just becoming apparent. But her first goal was to locate her family. Roberts drove 200 miles through the night, dodging power lines, overturned tankers and abandoned cars to reach Biloxi, where her 81-year-old mother, her sister and nieces had ridden out the storm. Once she confirmed they were safe, she turned around and sped back to the satellite truck to do a live shot for "Good Morning America." She made it with 20 minutes to spare.

Once on air, she was initially stoical, calmly reporting the scenes she had witnessed. But then Gibson asked about her family, and she dissolved into tears.

"I thought, 'career suicide,' " Roberts said. " 'I've cried, I mean, boo-hooed, on national TV. It's over.' "

Instead, her outburst elicited a wave of viewer sympathy and marked the beginning of a series of emotional reports from television journalists about the magnitude of the destruction on the Gulf Coast. "Good Morning America" is now organizing an effort to rebuild her hometown of Pass Christian.

"That is a moment when I looked up and said, 'I get it. This is why I'm here and this is what I'm supposed to be doing,' " she said of her hurricane coverage. "I have never felt more comfortable in my life. It's kind of like I'm breathing now."

Well, a few aspects of morning news still do give her pause. She admits to feeling some discomfort with the show's relentless promotion of ABC entertainment programs, such as "Desperate Housewives." In the last few weeks, the morning show has done repeated segments about the Sunday night drama, including a series called "Desperate Housewives' Real Lives," featuring real women dealing with issues on the program.

"It's a fine line that all the morning programs walk," she said. "We understand the reason why, and anything we can do to keep the show successful and it helps us, as well, but, yeah, every person who's a true newsperson, there's a point where, you do it, but sometimes you're like, 'Can't we just do it three times a week instead of four times a week?' "

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