TCA: ABC News President Aims to 'Topple' 'Today' Show's Ratings Domination

Ben Sherwood - 13th Annual Komen Los Angeles County "Race For The Cure" - P - 2009
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"They’ve been very mighty for a very long time,” said ABC News president Ben Sherwood. "But I like our chances."

ABC News president Ben Sherwood said his goal is to knock Today off of its perch as the top-rated morning news show, a position the NBC News program has occupied for more than 15 years.

“The Today show is very mighty and they’ve been very mighty for a very long time,” said Sherwood during the news division’s session at the Television Critics Association press tour on Monday. Joking about the "10 billion weeks" that Today has been No. 1, Sherwood said he wants ABC’s Good Morning America to “topple the Today show.”

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GMA is up double-digits year-over-year this season, narrowing the gap with Today to its smallest margin (551,000 viewers) in 16 years, since the 1995-96 season.

“The most important thing to me is growth. I like our chances as we keep growing,” said Sherwood, who characterized GMA as “dynamic,” “incredibly watchable,” “surprising” and “really fun.”

GMA co-host George Stephanopoulos is now pulling double duty as he’s gone back to anchoring Sunday public affairs program This Week – replacing Christiane Amanpour (who replaced Stephanopoulos in August 2010). It is a considerable workload even for someone as prodigious at Stephanopoulos.

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And Sherwood said that Stephanopoulos would take a day off from GMA periodically, though it would not be a set day each week.

Meanwhile, also on Monday, CBS News bowed its new morning program hosted by Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Erica Hill. CBS has fielded a persistently third-place morning program for years. And Sherwood – who said that he “watched a few minutes of [CBS This Morning]” – noted that a healthy morning show at CBS is good for TV news in general. “I think morning television benefits from a strong program over there. I think they’re going to put on a strong show. So good luck to them.”

And Sherwood defended ABC’s decision to re-title GMA between Christmas and New Year’s so that the low-rated holiday week would not be counted by Nielsen in the show’s season average ratings.

“The holiday viewing patterns are so skewed that we consider those to be special days anyway,” he said. “I think the reality is that we know that viewing patterns during the holiday are significantly depressed.”

Additional highlights from Sherwood’s appearance:

On Katie Couric’s addition to the news division: Sherwood said he was “thrilled to have her on the ABC New team.” But he noted that “her first priority is the syndicated show, no doubt about it.” He added that Couric, who has anchored primetime specials with Lady Gaga and Regis Philbin, may fill in as host of some of the network’s regular programs – except World News. “She’s done the 6:30 thing before. I think you could easily see her guest hosting on one of the other programs.”

On Amanpour’s departure from This Week and transition to world affairs correspondent: “Christiane had one of the greatest years of her career this year,” said Sherwood, referring to Amanpour’s work during the Arab Spring. “I think as we got to a big important national election, we felt that her tremendous strengths, world-beating strengths and her personal mission” would be better suited to “this global affairs anchor position that we created for Christiane. You’re also going to see Christiane doing a bunch of specials for us in the years ahead.”

Sherwood declined to comment on NBC News’ hiring of presidential daughters Meghan McCain and Chelsea Clinton. But he took umbrage at a reporter’s comparison between McCain and Clinton and Stephanopoulos, who transitioned to journalism after a career in politics in the Clinton administration.

"George Stephanopoulos is a first rate journalist and he has, over the last 15 years, developed an incredible set of skills. I would challenge the comparison of the daughters of two presidents of the United States with George Stephanopoulos. I think that is an unfair comparison.”

On whether Charlie Gibson, who recorded the voice-over introduction for the new This Week with George Stephanopoulos, will be back in the flesh on ABC News: “Charlie is a good friend. It is my hope that in time we’ll get Charlie back on the air. I’d love to have him come back and lend his voice to our political coverage.”


Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie