Stephanopoulos joins ABC’s morning crew

George Stephanopoulos once occupied one of the most powerful posts in the White House. As a trusted advisor to Bill Clinton, the political whiz kid worked right next to the Oval Office and was a key figure in every major policy discussion.

Starting Monday, the 48-year-old will take on a very different assignment. Seated next to co-host Robin Roberts, Stephanopoulos will work behind the anchor desk at ABC’s “Good Morning America,” charged with delivering both the serious-minded news and the frothier fare that make up the morning television mix.

It’s an unexpected trajectory for a Rhodes scholar who studied political theology at Oxford -- one that even he says he couldn’t have predicted. Stephanopoulos’ decision to leave his Sunday talk show, “This Week,” where he interviews presidents and foreign leaders, for the less erudite environs of morning television puzzles some of his longtime Beltway colleagues. But the move shows that Stephanopoulos has a firm grasp of the realpolitik of network television: that dollars rule.

“GMA” may lag behind NBC’s powerhouse “Today” (which marks its 14th year in first place today), but the show is still the top revenue generator for the news division. And when network executives ask you to take over for a superstar like Diane Sawyer, it’s difficult to turn them down -- especially if you’re as driven as Stephanopoulos, who colleagues say is savvy about diversifying his experience in order to enhance his broadcasting skills. “I don’t think I would have guessed this, but I don’t think anybody who worked with him would have been surprised by anything he put his mind to,” said former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers, a longtime friend. “George was always going to be big.”

It remains to be seen whether the boyish political aide who was a media star during the Clinton years will be embraced by “GMA’s” audience -- and whether he’ll take to the work as keenly as he did moderating a weekly political round table.

Stephanopoulos acknowledged he had some ambivalence about the post, though he said it was not as serious as was reported in the lead-up to his appointment. “I did have some questions, and part of it was to make sure that the fit was right, that it was something I could do and succeed at and it was something where my strengths would help the program,” he said in an interview Thursday.

Stephanopoulos was reassured, he said, after ABC News President David Westin described his desire to see the show take on a newsier edge.

Westin said he began having conversations with the show’s team about pursing a new focus months ago. That framework shaped his search for a new anchor. The news president added that he’s confident that Stephanopoulos will be deft enough to handle the program’s lighter features, which include celebrity interviews and cooking segments.

“I know who George is, I know how warm he is, I know how versatile he is, I know how wide his range is,” Westin said. “But I also want to move this program gently in a more substantive direction.”

The selection of Stephanopoulos, which was widely reported to be in the works before ABC made it official, triggered some anxiety among the show’s staff. Roberts sought assurances from Westin that she wouldn’t have to take on the bulk of the show’s softer segments. At a meeting Thursday to announce the move, “GMA” employees bluntly questioned Stephanopoulos about whether he was happy to be there, she said.

Roberts said staff members were relieved by his response, as well as his lighthearted demeanor.

“They are now bouncing off the walls,” said the GMA co-host, who added that she and Stephanopoulos would complement each other well.

“I think it’s going to be a true partnership,” she said. “Eighty percent of the show, he doesn’t know. I love how curious he is and how much he wants to succeed. I just think we’re going to grow together.”

Stephanopoulos first joined ABC in 1997 as a political analyst and liberal counterpart to Bill Kristol on “This Week,” then was made host in 2002. He will continue anchoring the Sunday show in the near term, until his successor is chosen, and will hold onto his post as chief political correspondent.

Monday will not only mark his first day on ‘GMA,’ but that of correspondent Juju Chang, who is replacing news anchor Chris Cuomo. Cuomo, who was also a contender to replace Sawyer, will move to the newsmagazine “20/20,” which he will co-anchor with Elizabeth Vargas, and get a larger reporting portfolio across the news division.

Much is riding on the chemistry of “GMA’s” new team, which is untested. The show is a vital revenue generator for the entire division and has been falling further behind its NBC rival. So far this season, “Today” has beat “GMA” by an average of 1.3 million viewers, its widest margin since 2002.

If the “GMA” audience is turned off by the new faces and viewership in the key 25- to 54-year-old advertising demographic falls, the news division could be out many millions of dollars in ad revenue.

“What could happen at ABC News is that if this does not work, they will have a big challenge paying the bills,” said one network news veteran familiar with the economics of the news division but who was not authorized to speak about internal workings.

The cascade of changes was triggered by “World News” anchor Charles Gibson’s decision earlier this fall to retire. There was little question among network executives about who would replace him, as Sawyer, ABC’s biggest star, had long sought the position. But the network did not have an immediate plan for replacing her on “GMA,” a source of bewilderment inside the news division.

“Of course it was frustrating,” Roberts said. “It’s very hard to do a show not knowing what was going to happen after Dec. 11. I didn’t understand the process, but I love the end result.”