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Duel at Sunrise

Diane Sawyer and ‘Good Morning America’ have all but closed the ratings gap with Katie Couric and ‘Today.’ How the former Ice Queen left America’s Sweetheart in a meltdown.


Katie Couric  

It’s a Friday at 6:47 A.M., on the set of ABC’s Good Morning America, and Diane Sawyer is fidgeting in the anchor chair, downing a Diet Coke and chewing a wad of gum, a somewhat jarring sight, given her reputation as the elegant, sophisticated, professional doyenne of morning TV.

“We’re ready to go, lose the gum,” the stage manager calls out. Sawyer pops it out of her mouth and begins to record a promo for the network’s affiliates. “Outrage over new photos of Saddam Hussein,” she says, then blows a word. Starting over, she gets the sentence right, then stumbles while hawking a “sneak peek” of a Desperate Housewives scene. Two tries later, she nails it, and, like a cheeky, triumphant child, sticks out her tongue.

The red light on the camera goes black, and Tony Perkins walks on to the set to say good morning to Sawyer and Robin Roberts, who joined Sawyer and Charles Gibson as a third co-anchor a few weeks ago. Perkins looks out the window at Times Square and asks, “Is it raining?” “Tony, you’re the weatherman!” Roberts answers. There is much team laughter.

As the broadcast starts, the antics keep coming. When newsreader Bill Weir blows a line for his own taped intro, Sawyer gets up from her chair and makes faces to try to break him up. With a minute and 45 seconds to get from the second-floor studio down to the street for a live segment, Sawyer and Roberts step into the hallway toward the elevator (Gibson, a more sober presence, is not here today—he’s been doing double duty filling in for Peter Jennings while Jennings is being treated for lung cancer). Sawyer yells, “I’ll race you,” and rushes for the stairs. It’s absurd, ABC’s reported $10 million–per–year anchorwoman, a TV-news icon for 22 years, racing down two flights of stairs in three-inch spikes on a whim. Roberts stabs frantically at the first-floor button—the elevator is torturously slow. Then—ding!—the elevator doors open, and there’s Sawyer, vamping. “Where have you been?”

Diane Sawyer at the Good Morning America studio, May 24.  

Okay, it was an over-the-top performance, staged to some degree, no doubt, for a reporter’s benefit. But it’s clear that Diane Sawyer is feeling genuinely giddy these days. Why not? Day after day, year after year, at dawn, Sawyer and Gibson, sitting in the Good Morning America studio on the corner of Broadway and 44th Street, have faced directly out the window at a billion-watt JumboTron projecting the Today show, with huge images of Katie Couric and Matt Lauer dominating not just Times Square but, symbolically, the entire morning-TV landscape. Today hasn’t just led the race for breakfast-time viewing supremacy for more than nine years, it has long been considered uncatchable. During May’s sweeps period, however, Good Morning America dramatically closed the gap and is on the verge of overtaking Today. Six years ago, when Sawyer and Gibson were named co-hosts of GMA (Gibson had worked at the show previously, then left; the two had never worked together), they had 3 million fewer viewers than Today. By last year, that number had shrunk to 1.3 million; as of May 9, it was as small as 45,000 (it rose slightly, to 90,000, as of May 16), and on certain days GMA flat-out beat Today.

The remarkable turnaround is about more than a popularity contest between Sawyer and Couric—Desperate Housewives has something to do with it, as do the shows’ producers, supporting casts, and respective styles. But Sawyer and Couric, the opposing poles of morning-TV stardom—Sawyer has been called the Ice Queen; Couric, America’s Sweetheart—are the lead combatants in the battle. Justly or otherwise, they personify their shows. If Today or GMA were to cover the story, they’d be virtually bound by the dictates of morning-TV-speak to call it a catfight, a characterization they both, of course, would resist. Regardless, right now, Diane & Co. are drawing almost all of the blood.

Ever since anchor Dave Garroway launched the Today show on January 14, 1952, appearing in the early years with a chimpanzee, J. Fred Muggs, as his sidekick, the morning shows have been a hybrid of the serious and the silly. Now they are sillier than ever. Hard news (Iraq, federal judicial appointments) occupies an ever-smaller portion of morning airtime, replaced by interviews with a 57-year-old woman who gave birth to twins (Sawyer, last Thursday) and a fisherman who caught a 124-pound catfish (Couric, same day). With the networks having backed off their obsession with attracting younger viewers and men (past attempts resulted in high-profile disasters), the morning-TV audience is now 65 percent female, with a median age of 54. Morning TV is essentially a medium of identification. When you invite someone into your kitchen for breakfast, even if it’s just electronically, she’d better be good company, or, with a flick of the remote, you’ll show her the door. Given the current morning-TV demographics, in other words, you have to connect with Topeka housewives if you’re going to score in the ratings.

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