ABC News' Ben Sherwood on 'GMA' Triumph, Robin Roberts Coverage and 'Tabloid' Claims (Q&A)
This story first appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Ben Sherwood is on his third go-round at ABC News, having left in 1993 and again in 2006 after a 2 1/2-year stint as executive producer of Good Morning America. When he returned to New York in December 2010, it was to a division decimated by layoffs and battered by the digital commoditization of news.
His "marching orders" were simple. "Restore the greatness of ABC News and win the future of news and information," he says. So far, Sherwood, 48, can tick off a content-sharing deal with Yahoo that has grown ABC News' monthly page views 85 percent to 293 million, according to comScore; a joint venture with Spanish-language network Univision set to launch next summer; and GMA's snapping of Today's 16-year stranglehold atop the morning-news rankings. With about 1,000 employees, the news division is profitable again and expanding; the Univision partnership will employ 350 people.
A Los Angeles-raised Harvard graduate who attended Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, Sherwood -- a married father of boys Will, 8, and Charlie, 2 -- is in many ways the classic overachiever, penning four books while climbing the TV news ladder. But this time he's all in: He's taken the executive office occupied by predecessors Roone Arledge and David Westin on the fifth floor of ABC headquarters at 47 W. 66th St. in Manhattan and had the newsroom moved from the third floor to an empty area right outside his office. He's added new blood, from GMA correspondents Josh Elliott and Lara Spencer and Katie Couric via a deal with ABC Daytime, to ABC's star-packed roster: George Stephanopoulos, Robin Roberts and Diane Sawyer, who landed President Obama's first post-debate interview Oct. 10.
And at a time when reporters are facing new dangers covering the tumult of the Arab Spring, Sherwood's biography gives him a unique perspective on sending journalists into the field. On Aug. 12, 1992, he was a 28-year-old junior producer reporting on the Bosnian civil war and traveling to his hotel on what journalists called Sniper Alley. Sherwood and veteran producer David Kaplan were riding behind Sam Donaldson and his camera crew in a press van. A sniper's bullet ripped through the back and killed Kaplan. He slumped onto Sherwood.
Sherwood keeps two photos from that day in his office. They are tucked onto a shelf, behind a picture of his father, Dick, who died eight months after Kaplan. One picture shows the bullet hole in their van, which is clearly marked as a press vehicle; the other is Kaplan on a stretcher being carried into a makeshift hospital in a Sarajevo post office. Says Sherwood, "That photograph is a reminder of that terrible day and the consequences -- and also the importance -- of being out there doing those stories."
The Hollywood Reporter: How did it feel to finally see GMA, a show you once produced, break Today's 16-year winning streak?
Ben Sherwood: It was a very happy day at ABC News that only took 852 weeks to achieve. (Laughs.) It's a never-ending battle. The ratings will surely swing back and forth, and while the first victory feels special, we should take nothing for granted.
THR: Before you got here, ABC News downsized by a quarter of its staff. Do you think it's still possible for TV news to be a growth business?
Sherwood: Absolutely. This is a fantastic time to be in news and information. I don't think of it so much as television, I think of it as screens and finding different ways to reach people who are consuming information on different kinds of screens.
THR: And that's what drove you to make the Yahoo deal?
Sherwood: Yes. Every choice we make is aimed at reaching more people with ABC News' great storytelling and journalism. If it's Yahoo, it's to distribute our content through their powerful networks, to reach more than 80 million people a month. If it's through Univision, it's to reach this expanding audience of acculturated Hispanics.
THR: How important is Univision to ABC?
Sherwood: They are experts at reaching this audience. We get to learn [from them]. Call it a DNA exchange. We really want to get some of the Univision DNA.
THR: ABC News weathered a series of mistakes about the Aurora, Colo., shooting and more recently was forced to backtrack on a report that Tony Scott had brain cancer. What have you learned from those?
Sherwood: We made some mistakes, we corrected them immediately, we studied them closely and learned from them, and we are committed, as always, to getting it right. When you open up the pages of a major newspaper or a magazine, you inevitably see the correction box where every day, every week, every month, journalists doing their best manage to make mistakes.
THR: ABC's Martha Raddatz got hugely positive reviews for moderating the vice presidential debate.
Sherwood: I felt like 53 million people discovered what we've always known about Martha. She is a treasure, an unbelievable journalist, and she is fearless in her pursuit of answers. It was a great night for journalism and for our profession. Martha proved that that it is possible to have a serious discussion, guide a conversation, keep a conversation on track and help people understand the big issues of the day.
THR: In January, Jimmy Kimmel will get the 11:35 p.m. slot, pushing Nightline to 12:35. Won't that take Nightline out of the news cycle and make it less relevant?
Sherwood: Nightline has a long and important future, both in late night and on Friday nights at 9. That's a really important time period for us, and I think that we’re going to have a chance to draw a bigger audience [in primetime].
THR: Kimmel is clearly on the rise, but how hard was it for you to swallow that decision?
Sherwood: We had very meaningful conversations about it, and at the end of the day, the company chose a strategy to pursue growth in late night by moving Jimmy forward. We're going to support that decision, and we are going to give it everything we've got.
THR: GMA has been accused of exploiting co-host Robin Roberts' illness and treatment. What's your reaction to that?
Sherwood: We are doing exactly what Robin has wanted every step of the way. Every frame of video you see, every mention is our attempt to fulfill Robin's wishes. Chronicling her journey is a very important part, in her view, of her healing process. She believes in the power of prayer, and I think she feels the outpouring of love, attention and concern has been crucial. No one would be more surprised by that criticism than Robin Roberts herself, who feels this is a very authentic part of who she is and taking what's happening to her to the people who care about her.
THR: Why do you think Today is struggling? Do you think it has anything to do with the way Ann Curry left?
Sherwood: My message to the GMA team every week is play your game and keep it going. We launched a game plan a couple years ago and have been playing it every day. If you look year-to-year, season-to-season, Good Morning America is gaining ground, and that's what we're focused on. I leave it to other people to speculate about what's going on at NBC News.
THR: Critics -- and executives at other networks -- contend that GMA has gone "tabloid." Has it?
Sherwood: More people are watching Good Morning America because of the mix of stories we do and because these five anchors are bringing it every day and having a blast. Are we doing stories from investigative to political to international to pop news? Are we doing stories that are relevant in people's lives? Do we have the mix right? We are constantly working on that balance. The criticism comes with the territory. I would say that folks might be better served focusing on the results of their own decisions.
THR: What is your relationship with Disney/ABC Television Group president Anne Sweeney like?
Sherwood: We've got a great relationship with Anne, and she's always there with us, like the morning Robin Roberts announced her diagnosis with MDS, the blood disorder. Anne came to [GMA's studio in] Times Square to support Robin and the whole team. She's very interested in our people and engaged in our business, encouraging our programs and championing our partnerships with Yahoo and Univision.
THR: How instrumental were you in bringing Katie Couric to ABC?
Sherwood: I was part of the team. I used to work with her at NBC. I've loved watching Katie on TV. She is obviously an incredibly talented journalist. I'm rooting for the daytime program. I also love it when she does Good Morning America or one of our specials, and we've got lots of work lined up for her in the months and years ahead.
THR: Do you watch your competitors’ broadcasts?
Sherwood: I definitely sample all the other programs and occasionally do a deep dive into a particular program to try to spend a lot of time with a particular competitor and try to understand what their game plan is.
THR: What was the last show you did that with?
Sherwood: Just one of our competitors. Look, one of the things about our business is we put our best plays on television. We don't hide anything. We put it right out there. It's basic game theory: study your competition. If you want to understand what works and what doesn't and why some people are more successful than others, just learn from them.
THR: Do you miss your writing career?
Sherwood: Not at all.
THR: So there isn't a book you're dying to write?
Sherwood: No. I’m fully engaged creatively and in every sense in our work and this business.
THR: Your book, The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud, became a movie. Will you dabble in Hollywood again?
Sherwood: That's my wife's profession, and I leave that to her. [Karen Kehela Sherwood is a former co-chair at Imagine Films who now runs its writers lab.] It was a surreal experience, and I loved it. I can't imagine it would ever happen again.
THR: What do you miss about L.A.?
Sherwood: We miss family and friends. But we get back to L.A. often -- monthly for work in Burbank, where I have an office at ABC headquarters, and also as a family during school breaks. But we love our life here.
THR: What's better about New York?
Sherwood: The subway. (Laughs.) And the football teams!
A NEWSMAN'S 24-HOUR DAY
2:15 a.m.: "Sherwood sends e-mails to half of the people who work for him at 2:15 a.m.," says senior vp and chief spokesman Jeffrey Schneider. Admits Sherwood: "It's true. We have a 2-year-old, and sometimes he pops up in the middle of the night and he's heard a dog or something. So when that happens, my day starts."
5:30 a.m.: Wakes up (again), then exercises on an elliptical machine in his building's gym while catching up on ABC News programs on his iPad.
6-7 a.m.: Checks in with GMA senior executive producer. Tom Cibrowski and senior vp James Goldston.
6:30-7 a.m.: Has breakfast, turns on GMA.
8 a.m.: Walks son Will to school with wife Karen.
8:30-9 a.m.: Arrives at office, heads ABC News editorial call.
9:30 a.m.-noon: Takes phone calls and starts "meetings, meetings, meetings, meetings, meetings all day."
12:30 p.m.: Has lunch most days with colleagues in the cafeteria.
3 p.m.: Heads afternoon editorial meeting "where we talk through the rundowns for World News, Nightline, next day's GMA, dot com."
6:30 p.m.: Watches World News in the office. "Some nights, in order to make it home to say good night to Charlie, I will leave after the first commercial."
7:30 p.m.: Has dinner at home, reads to Will.
8:30 p.m.: E-mails notes on World News.
11:35 p.m.: Watches Nightline. "If I don't get to watch in real time, I watch it on my iPad in the morning." In bed at midnight.