The curtain was about to rise on Broadway's Hair when Jim Murphy's cell phone rang. The call was from his boss, ABC News president David Westin, informing Murphy, the senior executive producer at Good Morning America, that come 2010, GMA was losing Diane Sawyer to World News.
"Diane has certainly earned the job," says Murphy, who called to congratulate Sawyer at intermission. "But it's a heartache and a headache for GMA."
While most of the reactions to Sawyer's new gig have centered on the seismic change in evening news two female anchors! the morning shows are left in far greater flux. A great morning news show is not entirely dependent on talent; breaking news is important, as is landing the biggest, most topical guests. But famous anchors make the other parts easier.
During her decade at GMA, Sawyer famously snagged highly desirable guests because she was Diane freakin' Sawyer. Celebrities were warm to her because she was married to director Mike Nichols, the world's most genial man. Hard-news guests appreciated her résumé of serious journalism, which includes stints on 60 Minutes and Primetime Live. Plus, she's a legendarily hard worker. (A request for an interview she must have gotten hundreds was met with a polite personal e-mail: "I'm not talking right now but will remember you called.") As a booker at a rival show said, "My job is about to get a little easier."
If a seat behind the desk of a nightly newscast is the equivalent of a network throne, morning news is more like the couch. But there's money in that couch more, in fact, than at 6:30 p.m. Despite being a perennial runner-up to NBC's Today show, GMA, under Sawyer, was a huge asset to ABC's bottom line. But the show has struggled recently, allowing CBS's The Early Show to approach it in the ratings. Without Sawyer that struggle gets even harder, and the show may have to reimagine itself as less anchor-driven. "I think what might happen now is there might be more sampling," says Zev Shalev, executive producer of The Early Show, which relies more on traditional news-reporting than star hosts. "That's a huge opportunity for us."
The clear winner in a Sawyer-free landscape would seem to be NBC's dominant Today, which will have the two strongest brand-name personalities in Meredith Vieira and Matt Lauer. But producers there aren't exactly fist-pumping. "Success in the morning is more about a show's brand and identity than any one talent," says Jim Bell, Today's executive producer. Today proved it could beat a big gun like Sawyer. Who knows what weapon ABC will be forced by necessity to haul out next? "In many ways, she was the devil we knew," says a Today exec.
It's too early to know what Jim Murphy will do with the gaping hole on the GMA couch, but early signs suggest a conservative approach. "I don't think the wheel has to be reinvented," says Murphy, who promises no sudden moves. "We owe it to our audience to get this right," he says. Probably wouldn't be bad for the show either.