Robin Roberts goes primetime
'GMA' co-host to front two ABC specialsNEW YORK -- Robin Roberts is comfortable in the knowledge that when ABC's "Good Morning America" makeover is complete, she will keep her seat at the anchor desk. She just doesn't know who will be sitting next to her.
As she waits, ABC is showing her some love. Roberts is the centerpiece for two primetime specials this month: a Tuesday night hour featuring country music stars and an interview with Janet Jackson that will air on Nov. 18. The Jackson interview is the type of important "get" for which Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters used to compete.
The specials could be read as both internal and external signs of Roberts' importance to the news division. She's worked at ABC News or cable sister ESPN since 1990 and her contract expires in the spring.
ABC News president David Westin expects to choose Diane Sawyer's replacement as "GMA" anchor in December, spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said. Sawyer is taking over for Charles Gibson at "World News" at the end of the year.
Like most people at ABC, Roberts is keeping mum about the search ("I haven't seen a list yet") and certainly won't express a favorite. Two people thought to be contenders -- George Stephanopoulos and Chris Cuomo -- have filled in as co-anchors in recent weeks.
Even though she's been a "GMA" anchor since 2005, Roberts, 49, acknowledges that Sawyer's experience and stature makes her a first among equals.
She expects that to change.
"I always want to be a team player," said the former Southeastern Louisiana basketball star. "I'm not making any demands, or feeling like, 'Ah-ha, now it's my turn.' I'm the nice one. I do throw some elbows under the basket, though."
ABC's morning show is a longtime, yet profitable, No. 2 to NBC's dominant "Today" show, and Roberts doesn't seem to expect the coming anchor change will bring with it a dramatic format shift.
"I have my routine in the morning and when it changes a little bit, I feel off-kilter," she said. "I can't imagine any sweeping changes, but you're always evaluating what your audience wants."
Roberts is serving an important role during a transition period for the show, said Jim Murphy, "Good Morning America" executive producer. "She's doing a lot of hard work right now. She keeps the show steady," he said.
Roberts has spent much of the past week preparing for her Jackson interview, which will be filmed at the singer's home in Malibu, Calif.
She has a difficult balancing act. Jackson is still mourning the death of her brother Michael, a story that continues to fascinate the public. But she's also a major star in her own right, with something to sell: Jackson has a greatest hits CD coming out in time for the holidays.
Roberts said she hasn't determined in advance how much of the interview would be related to Michael Jackson.
"I don't go in with a stack of questions and say three-quarters are going to be about this and one-quarter will be about that," she said. "I like to have a conversation. I like to walk away and have the person say, 'I thought we were going to do an interview and we just talked.' "
Same thing with the country music stars. Her "All Access Nashville" special at 10 p.m. EST on Tuesday features interviews with Carrie Underwood, Tim McGraw, Martina McBride, Loretta Lynn, Rosanne Cash and Vince Gill. She asks President Barack Obama, among others, about their favorite country tunes, bowls with Underwood and goes skeet shooting with McGraw.
For a woman who began her career spinning country music records at a radio station in Hammond, La., it's a return to her roots.
It sounds simple, but one of the things she's proud of in the special is being able to smoothly work in some questions to Underwood about the singer's boyfriend. She doesn't like asking personal questions, which are necessary when you're promising a peek backstage at stars.
That's because she tends to be a private person in a public job. Roberts talked on ABC about her fight with breast cancer and how Hurricane Katrina affected her family on the Gulf Coast. When you're on TV every morning, it's hard to hide your heritage, or not address it when your hair is falling out because of cancer treatment. Otherwise, she concentrates on the work.
For those reasons, Roberts said it was difficult speaking to McGraw about his family and abuse he witnessed as a child because she didn't want the interview to feel like it was done only to sell headlines.
"I think that's why I work so well with some celebrities," she said, "because they understand I understand exactly where they're coming from."