'Good Morning America' Oral History: How an A.M. Also-Ran Ascended to Ratings Glory

Gibson, Lunden and Spencer Christian holding down the GMA couch in 1989.
Courtesy of ABC

As the morning show celebrates its 40th anniversary, its anchors, producers and players tell THR all about decades of shuffling hosts, executive drama and covering world-shaking events.

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

By the time executives at ABC decided that it should have a morning program, NBC's Today show had been waking up America for more than 20 years. Good Morning America did not exactly get off to an auspicious start in November 1975. Many of ABC's stations declined to carry this experiment out of the entertainment division, which had tapped an actor — David Hartman — to inform bleary-eyed viewers. (The show would later be reassigned to the news division.) But soon, GMA's "conversational" approach, as Hartman puts it, won viewers over and the show mounted a challenge to Today, overtaking them for the first time in 1979 and fomenting the a.m. show wars that rage to this day. As GMA celebrates 40 years on TV, THR looks back at the milestones of a morning institution.

David Hartman, Host, 1975-87 [NBC's Today show] had been on since '52. It was the only game in town. CBS had an hour of news and then Captain Kangaroo. ABC wasn't even on in the morning at that point. The mission was: How do we inform in a conversational, intelligent way? It was not a full-service network. We hardly had any stations — maybe 115 stations — and not one paid commercial.

Woody Fraser, Executive Producer, 1975-80 I was producing The Mike Douglas Show and what [ABC Entertainment chief Fred] Silverman really wanted me to do was to bring Mike Douglas in and make him the host. I said, "Well, he's tied up." He calls me and [ABC executive Bob] Shanks into his office and he says, "The Today show is in the news division, and we're in the entertainment division. The Today show has news people as hosts. We're going to have actors as hosts." And we both laughed. I said, "That's ridiculous. You're going to have an actor interview Menachem Begin, interview the president of the United States?" But it worked out. The audience connected with David.

Joan Lunden, Correspondent and Fill-In Anchor, 1976-80; Co-Host, 1980-97 It was different [from Today]. It was a living room [set], there was the sunrise [logo], not pretentious, very purposely not high-end. We had that rattan sofa: the most uncomfortable sofa in the world.

Phyllis McGrady, Executive Producer, 1984-86 Today was a very New York-centric, sophisticated morning show. And so the whole strategy was [to create] a show that really reached out to the hinterlands and the American people. When I got there as a writer-producer in 1977, we were still really building the show. When you would call someone and say you were calling from Good Morning America, it was like, what is that?

Amy Robach, Roberts, Stephanopoulos, Spencer and Ginger Zee are GMA’s current generation.

Fraser One day in 1979, Hartman comes into my office and says, "You're not going to believe who just called me: Jimmy Cagney. He watches the show; he complimented me on my job." Now, Jimmy Cagney was a recluse. He lived on a farm in [upstate] New York. So I said, "What did you say to him?" He says, "Thank you." I said, "No, David, you're going to call him back and say, 'I want to come to your farm and interview you.'" And so we did. Nobody had ever done an interview with Cagney. And that was the first week we beat the Today show.

Lunden You want to try to find those people that have chemistry. And I was able to make good chemistry with David, even though I knew that he was making a couple million dollars and I was probably making a couple hundred thousand dollars. [In 1980, after I was promoted to co-host,] Barbara Walters came on GMA. She took me aside during the commercial break and said, "I'm going to give you the best advice you're ever going to get. They are not ready to give you equality. You just take every story they're willing to give you and make every one of them shine, and you'll be OK here." And that's what I did.

MCGrady The real turning point was in 1980 [when ABC had] the Lake Placid Olympics. It was full of great American stories, including the U.S. hockey team [beating the USSR]. We never looked back.

Correspondent Michael Strahan, flanked by the members of One Direction, during an August 2015 'GMA' Summer Concert Series segment.

Hartman We were breaking news almost on a daily basis. And it's not something people expected from a show produced by the entertainment division.[Texas] Gov. John Connally and Nellie Connally were in the car with JFK when he was killed. [They had testified in front of] the Warren Commission, but had never gone public. It was 1983, the 20th anniversary of the assassination. So [the] governor and Mrs. Connally came on. One of the biggest challenges of inter­viewing is having the guts to keep quiet and listen. So I said, "Gov. Connally, Mrs. Connally, tell us what happened in the car." It was all I could do to keep from getting choked up.

McGrady In July 1986, Prince Andrew, Duke of York, married Sarah Ferguson at Westminster Abbey. GMA originated from a different location five days that week as we counted down to the wedding. A major coup was to shoot the show live from Windsor Castle during that week. As a fun segment near the end of the show we had booked the royal family look-a-likes: a queen, a queen mother, a Prince Charles and a Princess Diana. I was in the remote truck when I started feeling the truck shaking and hearing screaming. Suddenly, security opened the door and informed us that the look-a-likes were waving to the crowds. All the tourists at Windsor Castle that day thought they were the real deal. It created a near riot. 

Lunden ABC got sold to Disney [in 1995]. And Disney said to the news department, "What would you like?" Roone Arledge [the head of ABC Sports and ABC News] said he'd like GMA. And they brought us all together into a meeting and said, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it. You guys have done an amazing job." Charlie leaned over to me and said, "Who's going to go first, you or me?"

McGrady  It was a big deal when Good Morning America came over to the news division. But I don’t think anyone understood what an important economic move it ultimately would be. At that time we had four or five magazine shows on the air. They were major profit centers for the news divisions. I think we all knew this is a peak and we’ll probably see erosion in primetime magazines, but I don’t think any of us could have predicted how rapid and how deep it would be. 

Lunden left in 1997, and Gibson was paired with Lisa McCree until 1998, when he also exited. With McCree and Kevin Newman as co-hosts, GMA's ratings cratered.

“Everybody was calling in to our control room, including Disney executives, to find out what was going on,” recalls Ross of covering 9/11 with Gibson and Sawyer. “Our control room stayed hot in case Peter Jennings’ [World News] control room went down. We were all told that we were possible targets.”

Shelley Ross, Executive Producer 1999-2004 I had been in all these meetings with Phyllis [McGrady]. We had lists and lists of people: Tom Selleck, Tom Bergeron, Rosie O'Donnell, Cynthia McFadden. The show was in free fall [in 1998]. And it was pretty much a given that the solution was to bring Charlie back. I'm in L.A., and they asked me to fly in to meet with Charlie Gibson two days before Christmas. I take a red-eye, then I get a call that Charlie didn't want to meet with me. He didn't want to be talked into coming back to the show. And I'm thinking, "Why didn't Charlie want to return?" The lightbulb went off: Maybe what Charlie needs is the prom date he can't turn down. Diane [Sawyer] was the prom date.

McGrady Diane and Charlie anchoring the program was an instant message to the news division that this show is very important and covering stories for this show is a major priority.

Ross When the second plane went in, my immediate thought was, "This is Pearl Harbor. We are under attack." Everything was happening so quickly. Charlie and Diane were so calm, so amazing. We sent Charlie and [producer] John Green to try to get [to Lower Manhattan] through Staten Island on the ferry. We sent George Stephanopoulos and [producer] Max Culhane [to Ground Zero]. Jessica Murrow, one of our audio people, her husband was a sommelier at Windows on the World. For me and director Bob McKinnon, she became the conscience of our coverage. So many of our staff had grown up in and around New York, and for the following days, you'd look around the newsroom and find someone slumped over their desk having just received bad news. I would walk many of the staffers out of the building and around the block. I didn't go home for days.

Robin Roberts, Correspondent, 1995-2005; Anchor, 2005-Present We had more room at the table [after Gibson left in 2005]. We were crammed in there, just elbow-to-elbow for a while. And what I really appreciated, and Diane did as well, is no one [said,] "First time, two women anchoring a morning show." It was, "Diane and Robin? Sure, why not?"

Ben Sherwood, Executive Producer, 2004-06; President ABC News, 2010-14 In early May of 2005, GMA closed the gap with Today and came within 45,000 viewers of victory — 45,000 out of 37 million total watching morning TV. That's 0.1%. Coming so close was equal parts frustrating and motivating.

Jim Murphy, Senior Executive Producer, 2006-11 We were constantly making small runs at Today; we'd go forward and then fall. So it was quite a struggle. And obviously the show was healthy, the show made money, but you wanted to win. So we were constantly doing new things. After Diane had gotten into North Korea [in 2006], we decided to go to every one of the so-called Axis of Evil [countries]. And we wound up going to Syria and interviewing Assad, [then] to Iran and talking to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. When you go somewhere far away with Diane, because she knows she’s not going to get there often, she knows how important it is to do a good job with it. And so basically you do a real lot of work in a short period of time.

With their coverage of the 1980 Winter Olympics, GMA began to establish itself as a legitimate news outlet.

George Stephanopoulos, Anchor, 2009-Present The truth is, I said no [to the GMA job] two or three times. [GMA adviser] Peter Horton helped me come to this notion of just being myself, reacting as honestly and authentically as I could. To take it on as improv professionals do and say yes to what's coming. That was a breakthrough for me.

James Goldston, Senior Executive Producer, 2011-12; President ABC News, 2014-Present We felt the morning show genre was ripe for updating. [It had] been unchanged for the past generation.

Lara Spencer, Correspondent 1999-2004; Lifestyle Anchor, 2011-14; Anchor, 2014-Present I had been at WABC doing a nightly feature called Life Around Here. [It's 1999], I go up to the newsroom one day, and there's this message from Diane Sawyer in her lovely voice saying, "I absolutely love this segment, and I would love for you to come work at Good Morning America." I called her right back. I was like, I don't want her to forget that she made this phone call! I would never even dare imagine that I would get a call like that.

'GMA’s' Lunden spent a week in the U.K. to cover the 1981 wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson — broadcasting live from Windsor Castle, a morning-show first.

Sam Champion, Weather Anchor, 2006-13 I was [GMA weatherman] Spencer Christian’s fill-in starting in 1989. It was my dream. I had just taken the job at WABC, had moved from Jacksonville, Florida, to New York. My interview in New York was the first time I was ever in New York. So I was immensely bowled over by the whole thing. 

Stephanopoulos I kind of like getting up early. To be truly up at 7 a.m. means for me to wake up at 2:30 a.m. The hardest thing is the grind. I’m not saying it in a complaining way, it's just a physical fact. I accept it gratefully. Live television is a physical event. It’s a hard thing about it, but it’s a fun thing about it. You never know what’s going to happen. The other challenge is the changes of emotion and tone required over two hours.

Josh Elliott, Anchor, 2011-14 George and Robin were exceedingly kind to put up with the rookie. My first day was the day [after] the U.S. had announced the killing of Osama bin Laden. The night before I stayed in a hotel across the street [from GMA’s Times Square studios]. My mom was in town on a trip that had been planned months before I knew I was getting the job. We had gone to dinner and I’m shutting down for the night: two alarms set, two wake-up calls set, blackout curtains. I turned off my cell phone. I’m ready to sleep. And there’s a knock on the door. It’s my mom, who is staying in the room next to me. And I’m like, "Mom, I need to go to bed. What’s up?" And she’s like, "Josh, the president is about to address the country and I think that’s something you need to be aware of." I turn on the TV just as Obama is making that I-am-the-man walk to the podium. [The next morning], I’m in Times Square doing a stand-up leading into the national reaction to the killing of Osama bin Laden. I didn’t have the heart to tell anybody it was the first stand-up I had ever done in my life.

Roberts Every correspondent has a standing request in with the president and they rotate with networks. I'm sure it never came up in the vetting process [for Roberts' May 2012 interview with Obama, in which he first declared his support for marriage equality] about my sexual orientation, but he's president of the United States. I'm sure he had to know. But that was never a discussion I had with either the president or Mrs. Obama. Honestly, the reason I think I was selected was the president wanted to have a conversation; he didn't want to be interrogated. That would come later. When NBC broke into programming to use the sound bite, that’s when you know it’s big, because we’re all so competitive. But, personally, the president making that kind of statement, that’s a moment I will never forget. But here I am thinking I’m all that and a bag of chips and my producer writes me a note on this blue card. And I think it’s going to say like, “Wow! That’s historic.” It said, "Lipstick on teeth." 

Goldston We had lost [in the ratings to Today] for more than 16 years, literally every week. We weren't just losing each season, but each week. It was pretty bad. It was tough. But the team kept going, kept battling it out.

Sherwood We'll never forget the morning of April 19, 2012. At 8:31 am, I received a call from Amy Miller in our research department. Her voice was filled with excitement. GMA had won for the first time in 852 weeks. I immediately called the GMA control room to share the news.

Roberts and Sawyer were the first all-female team to anchor a morning show.

Elliot We were coming back inside the studio. Robin was in front, and she stopped dead in her tracks, and let out a deep yelp of joy. Moments later, the rest of us knew why. We turned and grabbed each other and ... well, it gets fuzzy.

Goldston We had a very, very good party that night. Sixteen years is a long time! It was a catharsis, and it was a validation of [our] approach to the craft of making morning television. It was a big moment. Definitely not a defining moment — it continues to be close now. We continue to duke it out each week. It’s not like you win and you’re done.

In June 2012, five years after she survived breast cancer, Roberts revealed that she was battling a life-threatening blood disease that would require chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. Her treatment was chronicled on GMA, a decision that was questioned by GMA's competitors and others in the media.

Roberts For those of us who are journalists, those are rare oppor­tunities to be able to have a real teachable moment for the public. I'd say to [critics], "Ask the people that I talked to who were helped by me sharing my story." And I'm saying this very measured because, come on, seriously?! Yes, I got cancer on purpose and had a relapse so we could be number one. Give me a break.

Chris Cuomo, News Anchor 2006-2009 They are number one. And success is not to be mitigated, in my opinion. They give people what they want in the morning. There is plenty to choose from out there. They worked to get to number one; they deserve their success. Anyone who mitigates it, that’s Haterade as far as I’m concerned.

By early 2014, GMA's winning anchor team would disband: [Meteorologist] Sam Champion decamped to The Weather Channel in December 2013, and Elliott left for NBC Sports in March 2014, after a protracted contract negotiation. And the ratings pendulum also has swung: NBC's Today show has bested GMA for 10 straight weeks in the all-important 25-54 demo, making it the top-rated morning show this season, though GMA still leads Today among total viewers and has been the most-watched morning show for four consecutive seasons. 

Goldston We always play as if we are in second place. We always expect this is going to be a close race. You have to earn the audience's attention every single day. We work hard to do that, and [Today] works hard to do that. We enjoy the competition.

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