Josh Elliott's Messy 'GMA' Exit: Can He Rebound at NBC?
A contract standoff, terse emails, a $10 million salary demand: Why ABC's morning news star quit for a sports job and what it means for Bob Costas and Matt Lauer.
This story first appeared in the April 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
On March 30, months of tense negotiations between ABC News and Josh Elliott ended with a brief email. At 6:45 p.m. on a Sunday, Elliott sent ABC News chief Ben Sherwood a note informing him that he would be leaving Good Morning America for a job at NBC Sports. Less than 10 minutes later, Sherwood fired off a companywide email revealing that Amy Robach, a frequent fill-in for Robin Roberts during Roberts' six-month illness and herself a breast cancer survivor, would replace Elliott as GMA's news anchor. Anyone wondering how Sherwood felt about Elliott's decision could read between the lines of his email, which cited "a significant gap between our generous offer and his expectations."
Did Elliott, 42, make the right move? He is trading a position on the most-watched morning show for an undefined job in sports. Of course, that comes with the enormous audiences of NBC's Sunday Night Football, which averaged more than 21 million viewers last season. NBC sources stress that Elliott will not replace any of the network's current sports talent, but he is being eyed as a potential heir to Bob Costas, 62. And Elliott will be able to produce programs for all NBCUniversal properties.
Elliott's desire for a bigger job -- and a bigger payday -- hardly is surprising. Sam Champion left GMA in December for a role at The Weather Channel that includes his own morning show and profit-sharing. Long-time CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo departed after 20 years for a morning show on rival Fox Business Network.
Sources tell THR that Elliott was asking for $10 million a year in an escalating contract that topped out at more than $13 million. That was far more than the $5 million ABC News was willing to pay. Such a salary would have put him close to the reported $14 million pay for Roberts, who re-signed in December, and would have upset the delicate anchor hierarchy on GMA. (On March 26, GMA anchor Lara Spencer finalized a new long-term deal that will pay her about $3 million annually. And ABC News executives are expected to announce that Michael Strahan will join the show during the 7 a.m. hour in a in a nondaily role to fill the gender gap left by Elliott's exit. Strahan will continue to co-host Live! With Kelly and Michael.) In addition, ABC offered Elliott no guarantee that he would inherit George Stephanopoulos' lead anchor chair on GMA. Elliott actually will make less at NBC Sports -- $4 million, according to sources -- than ABC's offer. A noncompete clause in his contract precludes him from appearing on NBC's news programs for six months. But the pitched battle between GMA and Today -- and the hundreds of millions of dollars at stake in morning TV -- makes speculation about a possible role on Today inevitable. And NBC sources say Elliott likely will appear on Today in some capacity. (Since NBCU owns The Weather Channel, Champion already has made his Today debut.) NBCU execs are treading carefully given the show's messy Ann Curry exit. But there also seems to be a realization that Elliott is no Matt Lauer -- not yet. And NBC News president Deborah Turness stresses that Lauer, whose deal is up in the first half of 2015, is the show's anchor until he decides to step down. (Lauer's Today colleague Al Roker jokingly welcomed Elliott to NBC after his "conscious uncoupling" from GMA.)
Elliott personally was recruited by Sherwood in 2011 from ESPN's SportsCenter to join a revamped GMA along with Spencer, hired from The Insider. "We all knew that Josh was Ben's guy," notes one ABC News source.
But as Elliott's negotiations dragged on, tension at GMA became palpable. Sources say Elliott often arrived late to the Times Square studio, sometimes after 6 a.m. Meanwhile, communication with his co-anchors mostly was confined to in-show banter. Three days before Elliott quit, his CAA reps informed Sherwood that Elliott was "still thinking." The next communication, say sources, was the 6:45 p.m. email. And March 31, as GMA wrapped its first show with Robach in his seat, nearly no one on staff, including his assistant, had heard from Elliott. But at 9:08 a.m., he tweeted: "Impossible to quantify how much I loved -- and will miss -- my @GMA team."