Duel at Sunrise

Katie CouricPhoto: Dara Kushner/Infgoff.com/News.com

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.Photo: Chris Buck

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.

For years, Sawyer seemed constitutionally ill-suited to the task. With her striking good looks (blonde, five-foot-nine, former beauty queen) and formidable résumé (Wellesley grad, former Nixon aide, CBS News Washington correspondent), she was perceived as intimidatingly glamorous and cerebral in the early eighties when she took over as co-anchor of the CBS morning news. In subsequent jobs (60 Minutes correspondent, anchor of ABC’s Primetime Live), Sawyer built a reputation for landing scoops—she scored a much-talked-about interview with Boris Yeltsin when Mikhail Gorbachev was ousted. The fact that she was one half of a media power couple whose other half was Mike Nichols didn’t make her any more cuddly.

Couric, on the other hand, was a natural from the moment she landed in the morning-anchor chair in 1991, having been handed the job in a desperate move by NBC in the wake of the disastrous firing of Jane Pauley and hiring of neophyte Deborah Norville. With her wisecracking manner and winning smile, Couric not only won over viewers but proved to be a surprisingly disarming and appealing interviewer. After giving birth to two daughters while host of Today, she bonded even more closely with her audience. “Katie was Everywoman, shopping at the mall and dyeing her own hair,” says Michael Bass, a former Today producer who now helms CBS’s The Early Show. “People felt she was their really close friend.”

From left, Good Morning America's Robin Roberts, Charles Gibson, Diane Sawyer, and Tony Perkins.Photo: Chris Buck

Recently, however, an almost eerie reversal has taken place. Sawyer is winning over Middle American moms while Couric is alienating them. The Ice Queen enthusiastically goofs around in stunts like dressing up in seventies finery and doing the Hustle and comfortably plays well with the other cast members. Age, normally death on television for a woman, works in her favor; Sawyer will turn 60 in December, and she and Gibson, who’s 62, joke frequently about their old-fogy status. It has the effect of humanizing her: What’s more charming to middle-aged women than a middle-aged woman who’s comfortable getting older in front of them? Far from being a news snob, Sawyer has proved to have “some of the most lowbrow taste of anyone you’d ever meet,” says Perkins. “She’ll be the one to say, ‘We should do a segment on fried Twinkies.’ ”

“Diane breaks the rules,” ABC News president David Westin says. “She’s elegant, and people know she’s married to Mike Nichols. Yet we’ve done research, you go and talk to women, and they feel they can identify with her.” While he’s on the subject, Westin can’t resist taking a shot at the competition. “Diane’s never had to overcome the girl-next-door cheerleader personality—that’s a tough piece of business. If that’s not such a plausible thing anymore, it’s hard to know where you go with that persona.”

Competitive motives aside, he’s right. Before viewers’ eyes, Couric has morphed from girl next door to fashionista, trading in tailored suits for leather jackets, donning what seems like a different pair of glasses every week, and switching hairstyles with Hillary Clinton–like zeal. When she went public in 2002 with the fact that she had arm-wrestled NBC into giving her a four-and-a-half-year, $65 million contract, Couric lost credibility with middle-class viewers (Sawyer doesn’t take in laundry to pay the bills but is discreet about her salary). “When you have a woman who is pushing 50 coming into your living room at 7 A.M. dressed in an extremely age-inappropriate manner and making ridiculous comments like, ‘Oh, $100 for a skirt, I can’t imagine paying that’—when everyone knows what she’s earning—it doesn’t sit well,” says a Today staffer.

It’s not just about the clothes and money; the Today studios are rife with reports of Couric’s ego raging unchecked. The dutiful Lauer arrives early to read up for interviews; Couric, reports co-workers, often flies in at the last minute unprepared, assuming she can fake it, presumably, on experience and charm. Some say she’s become an air hog. Whether it’s her doing or the producers’, Couric logged 4,826 minutes in 2004, doing interviews and feature segments in the 7-to-9 A.M. time slot, compared with Lauer’s 4,154 minutes, according to Andrew Tyndall, who analyzes TV-news content. That’s an eleven-hour difference in face time. (Sawyer and Gibson are virtually equally matched; in fact, he edges her by 38 minutes.)

Although Couric has suffered through two very public tragedies—her husband and sister both died of cancer—sympathy for her has waned, in part with the passage of time, in part because of her new image. Now it’s open season on her. The tabloids feature breathless gossip about her on-again, off-again romance with television executive and Boston Red Sox owner Tom Werner and her brief fling with a New York trumpet player.

Sawyer with fans at the May 24 Good Morning America. Photo: Mark Peterson/Redux

“That’s ‘Page Six,’ ” says Phil Griffin, the newly named executive in charge of the Today show. “Who cares about it? Katie’s been in this for a long time.”

The network declined to make Couric or Lauer available for this story, offering Griffin alone, and only for a phone interview. Allison Gollust, NBC’s senior vice-president of news media, was so eager to make this story go away that when I first called to request interviews, she not only declined but told me that I’d be reduced to talking to “disgruntled ex-employees.”

Of the many people I spoke to who criticized Couric, some were unhappy employees, to be sure, and all refused to be identified, but her detractors ran up through the ranks at NBC. “She’s surrounded herself with suck-ups,” says one. “It’s never her fault.” Says another, “She can be phenomenally wonderful and generous, and when you’re in her presence you feel great. But there’s a flip side, and it isn’t pretty.”

d?*¸? to the Q-ratings research on viewer likes and dislikes, Couric’s negatives were already rising by last summer, and a TV executive, who doesn’t have a vested interest in this fight, says the unflattering publicity can only make matters worse. “When there is any kind of soap-opera aspect to the show, it gets magnified; that does change public perception,” he says.

It hasn’t hurt Good Morning America that ABC has been blessed by the prime-time gods with two huge hits this season, Desperate Housewives and Lost, bona fide cultural phenomena that are cross-promoted endlessly on GMA, while NBC has lost Friends, Frasier, and Seinfeld in recent years. But as Westin says, “CBS is No. 1 in prime time, and where are they in the morning?” (The answer: CBS’s The Early Show remains a perennial third.) “Does being able to have someone from Desperate Housewives on our program on Monday help us? You bet,” says Westin. “But we’re producing a better program and taking advantage of everything we can get our hands on.” (For the record, CBS News president Andrew Heyward notes that his show is also benefiting from Today’s problems. “With the Today show losing viewers, GMA has done a good job closing the gap, but some of those people are coming to us too,” he says.)

Phil Griffin insists the show suffers from nothing more than its own success. “We’ve got a race on our hands,” he says. “We’ve had a ten-year streak. It’s hard to keep that up—you’ve got to reinvent yourself. People feel good,” he says. “We’re not going to give in.”

Griffin’s rah-rah rhetoric notwithstanding, morale has taken a huge hit at NBC’s Rockefeller Center studios. “We used to tell people, your family should watch our family,” says one NBC source, “but we’ve become the Manson family.”

NBC executives are scrambling to salvage the show with a firing- and-hiring binge: Today executive producer Tom Touchet—the show’s third producer in five years—was just shown the door and replaced by the tag team of Griffin, a former MSNBC executive, and former sports producer Jim Bell; a host of lower-level jobs are also in turnaround. Last Friday, NBC News president Neal Shapiro was said to be in talks to leave his post, partially owing to the crisis at Today.

Shapiro’s boss, NBC president Jeff Zucker, the former Today producer who has long been one of Couric’s biggest boosters, recently descended to the control room for several visits to smooth things over. He has been reduced to apologizing repeatedly for the show, telling reporters at a breakfast, “We haven’t really innovated at the Today show in the last three or four years. You need a sense of freshness, and I don’t think we’ve given that.” But he stoutly defended his anchors at the press event, saying, “I don’t think there’s an issue with the talent.”

NBC, according to Business Week, earns an estimated $250 million in operating profits from Today. Westin wouldn’t reveal ABC’s figures but says, “Good Morning America is the most profitable program we have. The sensitivity on a tenth of a demographic ratings point is substantial, well over $10 million a year.”

No wonder, then, that both sides treat the ratings war with deadly gravity. In the control room at Good Morning America on the Monday after I witnessed Sawyer’s comedy routine, executive producer Ben Sherwood, who took over the show a year ago and has led GMA in the final sprint to catch Today, glanced repeatedly at the monitors showing all three morning shows and scribbled notes. At 7:13 A.M., Lauer interviewed a dermatologist about the importance of using sunscreen; at the same time, Sawyer was talking to two Florida policemen who found an abducted 8-year-old girl buried under rocks in a Dumpster. For Sherwood, who had previously consulted for Today (Touchet ended the relationship three years ago), this spring’s GMA ratings surge is not only welcome news—it’s vindication. But Sherwood is not about to gloat. He’s taking his notes, he says, as part of the ongoing strategic battle—“so I can study the chessboard afterward.”

Sawyer is equally careful not to crow. “Anything that happens can be reversed tomorrow,” she says. Still, when I relate to her the Manson-family snipe, Sawyer, whose habit of being politic can be maddening, nearly falls out of her chair laughing.

As Diane Sawyer describes her schedule, just listening to her makes you want to take a nap. She may have warmed to soccer moms, and they to her, but she’s still an alpha female. Sitting in an ABC office, she tells me she arrives at work most days about 4:15 A.M., an hour before most of her colleagues, because she likes the quiet time to read newspapers online, watch early TV-news shows, and look over the day’s script. She doesn’t sleep at all on Sunday nights, she says, and goes to bed by 8:30 on Mondays. On subsequent nights of the week, she sleeps less. On Thursdays, she often goes out with Nichols—“I’ll get three hours of sleep,” she says. On Fridays, she crashes for seventeen hours. “Poor Mike,” she says. “He puts a mirror under my nose to see if I’m still breathing.”

By all accounts, Sawyer is obsessive about putting her imprint on the production, from arguing for particular stories to using her clout as a booker to reel in big-name guests. “Diane is much more involved than I am,” says Gibson. “She’ll turn to you when you’re about to do an interview and say, ‘Are you going to ask about such-and-such?’ ” This could be annoying, but Gibson insists he doesn’t mind because her ideas are often so good. Producers have been known to get e-mails at all hours from Sawyer. Jessica Stedman Guff, a GMA senior producer, received a recent 2 A.M. BlackBerry message; the anchor wanted to mention on-air an intriguing Italian study on menopause.

Sawyer has been in public life too long, and is far too cautious about her image, to behave badly. If anything, she’s absurdly deferential. When Roberts was named co-anchor, Sawyer urged her to choose her outfits first (Sawyer synchronizes her own color combinations to avoid a clash). “I should defer to her,” says Roberts. Sawyer insists that her competition with Couric is not a catfight. “She is so talented. Matt is equally wonderful. We’re just different.”

As guarded as she can be, there’s an openness that surfaces at unexpected moments. On the Friday morning I watched the broadcast, Sawyer regaled a group of visitors to the set with the familiar beauty queen’s tale of how she was so “dorky” in high school that she didn’t get invited to the prom. She made further protestations of her insecurity to me. “This is a very hard schedule on the zipper,” she said. “You can’t imagine what it’s like to do this for a living. You look at the camera and think, Heavens, hold your stomach in. Or, What an idiotic thing I’ve just said. I don’t watch the show; it would be too painful.” It had the ring of truth.

The current revival of Good Morning America is a result not just of the popularity of Sawyer and Gibson and ABC’s prime-time success, but of years of tinkering. By the late nineties, GMA was barely treading water in a business in which you move forward or you die. This was a remarkable turn of events for a network that had grown accustomed to being No. 1 in the morning (GMA was first in the ratings for years). The show had long been run by the Entertainment division, featuring two charismatic anchors. “David Hartman and Joan Lunden were unassailable, no matter what Today tried to counterprogram against them,” says Tyndall. But winning formats tend to have an eight-to-ten-year life span, he says (Today, it bears repeating, has been No. 1 for nine-plus years), and GMA “became stale.” GMA underwent a series of cast changes, ranging from the relatively smooth (Hartman was replaced by the respected correspondent Gibson in 1987) to the catastrophic—dumping Lunden for Lisa McRee in 1997. That move was the equivalent of remaking Waterworld: NBC had unhappily played out that exact drama about seven years earlier, when it ousted the popular veteran Jane Pauley, 39, for the untested 31-year-old Deborah Norville, with unhappy results.

But ABC’s corporate suits paid no heed to that lesson, fantasizing instead about the ad dollars to be gained from a younger demographic. GMA’s viewers were infuriated enough by Lunden’s departure to vote with their remotes, succumbing to the charms of Couric, who was, at least, several years more tenured and older than McRee.

By the mid-nineties, Good Morning America had been moved under the auspices of ABC’s News division. In 1998, nine months after Lunden was let go, Gibson was told that his services were no longer needed on the dawn patrol; he was replaced by a handsome, young Canadian, Kevin Newman. “My sell-by date had arrived,” Gibson says. He adds that he wasn’t entirely sorry to leave because the show had become a mishmash of jarring stories and weird camera angles. “They were doing this hippie-dippy thing. It was like MTV—they were desperate to get a younger audience.” Offered a job at CNN, Gibson was persuaded to stay on at ABC and ultimately worked on the magazine show 20/20.

Good Morning America was in free fall by the autumn of 1998, with the new anchor team ridiculed in the press as airheads. “The numbers were crashing,” says Westin. “There were serious discussions—maybe we should give the time back to the affiliates, or give it back to Entertainment and do a Rosie O’Donnell kind of program.” He asked Phyllis McGrady, a senior ABC News exec who had produced GMA during its glory years, to run a task force to figure out what to do with the time slot. Several producers were asked to pitch their ideas. The GMA executive job was given to Shelley Ross, a talented and hard-charging L.A.-based producer who worked with Sawyer on stories for the anchor’s magazine show, Primetime Live. The consensus on how to contain the damage was to get McRee and Newman off the air as soon as possible.

Gibson’s gravitas and low-key, comforting presence were suddenly seen as valuable again, and he was asked to return to stabilize the broadcast until the network brass could come up with a new anchor team. “I said no,” Gibson recalls, insisting he didn’t turn down the offer out of anger but because “I really did feel my time had passed.”

Ross recalls being on an airplane from Los Angeles to New York, trying to figure out how to persuade Gibson to return, when suddenly it came to her—what about partnering him with Sawyer? “I knew she had this aloof persona,” Ross says, “but I thought if people could see her, in her Coke-bottle glasses, with her self-effacing manner and blotchy skin, they’d see that she’s real.” Ross picked up the Airfone, somewhere over Kansas, and called Sawyer to pitch the idea. Meanwhile, ABC’s News executives, meeting in Manhattan, seemed to have almost simultaneously come up with the same notion. “Diane’s name was thrown out, and we all just looked at each other and held our breath for a second,” says one high-level staffer. “The way the air hung in the room, it felt right at that very second.”

What Sawyer remembers is sitting in her ABC office on Christmas Eve with Gibson, as the two of them played the equivalent of anchor chicken. “I said to Charlie, ‘I’ll do it if you’ll do it,’ ” she says. “He said, ‘I’ll do it if you do it.’ We thought it was a lark. We’d never worked together like this. We said hello to each other in the halls. We didn’t know whether it would be a disaster.” At the press conference to announce the new pairing, a reporter asked how long the arrangement would last, and Sawyer scribbled “three months” and handed the slip of paper to Westin. (It’s become a running joke: “Every three months we have a conversation,” Gibson says. “Are you ready to quit yet?”)

The first Sawyer-Gibson broadcast aired on January 18, 1999. GMA soared a remarkable 25 percent in the ratings that first week—picking up a million viewers—and then held on to that gain. But the show was still a poor relation to Today, and there was skepticism at ABC as to whether Sawyer, who had co-anchored the CBS morning news in the eighties, first with Charles Kuralt, then Bill Kurtis, would wear well over time. “I had people telling me that you’re making a terrible mistake,” says Westin. “They thought she did not have the engaging personality that Katie did in the morning, and that it might also damage Diane.”

There was no one moment when Sawyer and Gibson officially became the permanent GMA anchors—it just happened. Why did Sawyer take the job? At first, she did it out of corporate loyalty. Then, it turned out, she liked it. Ten hours of live TV a week afforded her tremendous visibility, and the fact that she got to keep her Primetime job meant she could do more in-depth reports as well. Traditionally, morning anchors want to move up and out of the job, Barbara Walters or Tom Brokaw style. Is Sawyer a candidate for Jennings’s job should he retire or be unable to return? Out of respect for Jennings, ABC insists, it is not making succession plans. Gibson is thought to be a potential replacement, since he’s been filling in three nights a week. But it stands to reason that Sawyer, the more luminous of ABC’s morning-TV stars, would have to be considered. She has only one thing to say on the matter: “We all want Peter back.”

With the Sawyer-Gibson experiment under way, Ross, who had never done a live morning show, was charged with giving Good Morning America a new identity. Although the ABC marketing department came up with the slogan “Start Smart” to herald the Sawyer-Gibson pairing, Ross was not interested in crafting a program that highlighted the anchors’ intellectual prowess. Instead, she set out to create a brash show with a tabloid sensibility and an emotional, real-people bent. “Today has traditionally tilted to politicians, celebrities, athletes, and authors,” says Tyndall. “It’s been a hallmark of Good Morning America to be more of a populist, just-folks show.” That meant fewer stories about world affairs and Congress, and more tear-inducing tales of missing children, quirky laugh-out-loud features from around the country, frequent health stories, and faster-paced segments.

Ross says she knew when she took the GMA job that “the show was treated like the illegitimate stepchild of the News division.” ABC’s correspondents were merely taping new leads after the evening-news show aired for warmed-over segments to be used on the morning show; there wasn’t even a system for ABC’s affiliates to alert the program to great local stories. Legendary for putting in 100-hour weeks, Ross became a one-woman force for change, pushing the staff hard—ultimately too hard—to book the most desirable guests and come up with compelling TV. Rather than just have the anchors interview prolific author Stephen King, for example, she brought in actors to read from his books and try to stump him in remembering which passage came from what text. That’s a gimmick, for sure, but it’s the kind of gimmick that works on morning TV. After that first week when ratings soared, the progress was slow but steady, and Ross won a reputation among her peers for turning Good Morning America into a worthy adversary. “She came into a moribund show,” says Steve Friedman, a former producer of Today and CBS’s morning show, “and gave it a shot of adrenaline. She woke up the patient.”

Innovation in morning TV often consists of copying what another show does successfully, if in a slightly different form, and ABC did that, too. Mimicking Today’s street-level, windowed studio, Good Morning America relocated at the end of 1999 from a windowless studio on the Upper West Side to its new home at 44th and Broadway. “The minute we arrived, it was like someone put extra caffeine in our coffee,” says Sawyer. “You get to go out live with our cameras, meet the doorman who sings at the Millennium Hotel, go see the guys at the recruiting station.” GMA also copied Today’s use of Rockefeller Center as a stage for its concerts and other popular special events, and began booking bands for its own Times Square gigs.

Although it’s true that morning-TV viewers typically reject hard news with their Cheerios, certain events—war, natural disasters—are exceptions, making viewers hungry for breaking developments from the moment they wake up. On 9/11 and in the following weeks, Sawyer and Gibson, experienced at handling breaking news, won a substantial following for their solid and sensitive coverage, and after the crisis ebbed, newly loyal audience members continued to tune in. Since then, GMA has frequently won its time slot when news breaks—recently, for example, when John Paul II died.

GMA has also tinkered with its cast. Robin Roberts, a former ESPN sportscaster who started doing pieces for the show in 1995, was promoted to the more visible job of newsreader three years ago. Like a long-married couple who need something to spice up the relationship, Sawyer and Gibson were happy to have a new playmate. “I get on Diane’s nerves, and she’ll tell you that she gets on mine,” says Gibson. “Robin changed the dynamics. She’s an energizer.” Roberts gives this assessment of the ensemble: “Diane is sexy, she’s the “It” girl; you want to hang out with her and be her friend. Charlie’s like the lovable uncle at the picnic, and I’m the sidekick.”

By last spring, Good Morning America had closed the ratings gap to the 1.3 million figure, but the staff had grown restive with the tough-love leadership style of Ross. With her my-way-or-the-highway attitude, she had alienated the cast and crew. “It was not a democracy, it was a dictatorship,” says Roberts. She credits Ross with reinventing the show, but adds, “It got to the point where we needed to be hugged.” Perkins echoes the sentiment: “We didn’t always see eye-to-eye.” Sawyer, ever deft at avoiding controversy, declined to discuss Ross. Gibson, who has been publicly portrayed as the villain in this drama, denies he was responsible for her departure. But he acknowledges that he and Ross often clashed over the content of the show—“Shelley and I had real disagreements,” he says. He was particularly upset in early 2004 when Ross insisted on leading the show with video of the police raid on Michael Jackson’s Neverland, rather than a story he believed was far more important, the decision of Massachusetts’ highest court to allow gay marriage, a ruling that would turn out to have a major impact on the presidential election.

A few weeks later, Ross was gone, transferred to run Primetime (she has since moved from that slot to a job developing new content). Westin insists that there was never a GMA staff rebellion, and that he “needed” Ross elsewhere, but admits that “she did not want to move” from GMA. Ross says she takes comfort from several recent stories giving her credit for setting the show on course, but it has to be painful for her to be watching from the sidelines as GMA closes the gap on Today.

Ross’s replacement, Sherwood, had left his full-time job at NBC several years earlier to write novels (his romantic second book, The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud, was a best seller). Arriving at GMA, he quickly set out to create a more congenial environment, encouraging the entire staff to pitch ideas, and speeding up the pace of the broadcast, shortening segments to cram in more stories per half hour than Today. He has done so, in part, by using Today’s superiority in the booking wars to GMA’s advantage. “Because Today has historically been the ratings leader, they often get first crack at the guests,” Sherwood says. “We don’t have the luxury of doing live interviews as often as they do.” As a result, GMA often pre-tapes interviews, then edits the segments; on a recent morning, Gibson taped an interview with the parents of children who had been roughed up by a school-bus driver—Couric went live with them later. “They’re getting a more lively pace by cutting out the deadwood in an interview,” says Tyndall. “It’s more about getting sound bites than the interaction between the interviewer and interviewee.”

In another populist tactic, Good Morning America has begun offering a what-it-means-to-you spin to virtually every story. “No matter what story we cover, from serious news to soft news, we have to find the relatable characteristics,” says Tom Cibrowski, a senior ABC producer in charge of programming for the show’s first hour. “It’s about real people, emotions, getting beyond the dryness of stories.” A recent news story on the travails of embattled U.N. ambassador-designate John Bolton, described at a Senate hearing as a “kiss-up, kick-down” government executive, was quickly followed by a segment on “toxic bosses.”

In the end, GMA didn’t creep up on Today with any one dramatic move. They narrowed the divide with a smart, slow march of small innovations. And like a good political team, they sat back, and let the other guy screw up.

For a woman once hailed as America’s Sweetheart, Katie Couric now has enemies (albeit off-the-record enemies) everywhere. How did it come to this? There’s surely a sexist edge to some of the abuse being heaped on an ambitious woman who’s not shy about pushing hard to get her way. Yet the current snarkiness about Couric also involves a genuine sense of betrayal: People who used to like and admire the anchorwoman now see her as an out-of-control star. As someone high up the food chain at NBC puts it, “They’re worried about Katie and the perception she’s become a diva. The concerns are that she runs the place on whimsy and on her very strong need to be at the center of everything.”

Ever since Today’s executive producer, Jeff Zucker, her trusted ally, was promoted in December 2000 to become president of the Entertainment division, the backstage action at Rockefeller Center has resembled the skating rink on a busy winter day—a lot of gawky maneuvering and a few outright collisions. Without Zucker around, Today hasn’t had a leader powerful enough to either make Couric happy or rein her in. Zucker’s successor, Jonathan Wald, had come from NBC’s Nightly News; by all accounts, he and Couric never hit it off, and after two and a half years he was sent packing to NBC’s version of Siberia, CNBC. Next up was Tom Touchet, recruited from ABC, with experience at Good Morning America; he too lasted about two and a half years before being axed in April.

Couric has publicly protested that she had almost nothing to do with the latest decision. (“I wish I were that powerful and calling the shots,” she told USA Today. “It’s just not the case, but for whatever reason people ascribe to me power that I don’t really have and don’t exert.”) But she left fingerprints. On the Tuesday that Touchet was fired by Neal Shapiro, the producer went back to his office after getting the news and then received a call from Couric. She was on the line to suggest a story for the next day relating to coverage of the new pope. When Touchet explained that he had been let go and wouldn’t be producing the show, Couric blurted out, “That wasn’t supposed to happen until Friday.” (Touchet, who didn’t return calls, repeated her comment immediately to other staffers standing around his office at the time and subsequently told his friends that Couric didn’t even try to fake the usual so-sorry-wish-you-well niceties; instead she abruptly ended the call.) When Lauer organized a good-bye dinner for Touchet and senior staffers, no one was surprised that Couric was not there.

Then the grenade landed. On April 25, New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley used the firing of Touchet as an excuse to write a brutal story about Couric, with such lines as “At the first sound of her peremptory voice and clickety stiletto heels, people dart behind doors and douse the lights.” The story further remarked on the “Marxist-style cult of personality” the network has created around the anchorwoman, noting, “The camera fixes on Ms. Couric’s legs during interviews.” Couric was “very upset about the Alessandra Stanley piece,” says an NBC source. The same source says there has been a certain amount of Schadenfreude at NBC’s headquarters. “Some people thought it was a good thing, because she had to confront it.”

With GMA closing in on Today in recent weeks, there are rumors going around NBC that the unthinkable could happen—that Couric’s contract, which is up next May, might not be renewed. Griffin, a well-regarded veteran NBC executive, insists that the anchorwoman has the full support of the network. “Nobody is talking about that. We’re going to keep Katie,” he says. “She’s one of the most respected journalists in the business. People can relate to Matt and Katie; they can connect to them.”

The mantra at GMA is now, Stay the course, and don’t get smug. “Charlie, Diane, and Robin are clicking,” says Sherwood. “But we’re up against a mighty opponent.”

Today’s new team of producers, meanwhile, has decided to showcase Couric and Lauer more. “We’ve got the two best ad-libbers in the business—we’re giving them more room to talk so they’re not so tightly produced,” says Griffin. “We’ve got to be more aggressive. We’ve got to be stronger and get bookings.” NBC’s political stars, Tim Russert and Chris Matthews, have recently made appearances, but an NBC staffer quips, “If you have to book your own staff, you’re not exactly winning the booking wars.”

Day by day, as the overnight ratings come in this month, the tension is building as NBC braces for what is now perceived as the inevitable—the huge psychological blow when Good Morning America passes Today. There’s a built-in momentum once these kinds of viewing shifts occur, says Tom Wolzien, a former NBC executive who is now a media analyst at the investment firm Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. “If the feeling is that the Today show is stale, if everybody’s talking about it,” he says, “people will look for something different.”

In early May, NBC unveiled one of those wildly hyped new segments the morning shows roll out for the sweeps period. The shtick was that the show’s anchors and viewers got to live out a fantasy—jumping out of a plane, say, or whitewater rafting—on the Today show’s dime. On Thursday, the day the latest weekly ratings were due, a set had been erected outside the studio for a segment in which Al Roker was zipping through the air in a harness, Tarzan style. A giant backdrop promoting the bit loomed over the scene, with the name of the segment emblazoned in large, bright letters. What it said was LIVE FOR TODAY.

Duel at Sunrise