Good Morning, Diane

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On the status ladder of network news, anchoring a morning newscast has long been a sign that you haven't quite made it to the top rung of superstardom. Today co-anchor Katie Couric, one of NBC's biggest stars despite the fact that she has to appear in full makeup at 7 a.m., has gone a long way toward disproving that accepted wisdom. Still, early-morning duty is widely regarded as a stepping stone to the really plum jobs on the evening news or one of the prime-time newsmagazines.

So Diane Sawyer caused quite a shock in the TV world last week when she agreed to get out of bed a few hours earlier to help rescue the floundering Good Morning America. The prime-time news diva was named interim co-anchor of the show along with Charles Gibson, who returns to GMA after ending an 11-year stint on the show just last May. The surprise move revealed much about the alarms set off at ABC over the ratings collapse of its once dominant morning show. It may also say something about how big TV-news stars can, when the fire bell rings, act like team players too.

GMA's woes are dire. It was the most watched morning program for much of the 1980s and as late as 1994 was still neck and neck with NBC's Today show for No. 1. From there it's been all downhill. Put under control of the news division in 1995 (after years under the auspices of the entertainment side), GMA seemed to drift and grow tired. Yet when longtime co-anchor Joan Lunden was eased out in 1997, no obvious successor was ready to step in. After Gibson moved on too, the show was left with a new team, Lisa McRee and Kevin Newman, who had little following or chemistry. The show's viewership has fallen further and further behind Today's; in the most recent weekly ratings, GMA even dropped behind CBS's perennially third-ranked This Morning.

Local affiliates were growing restive, as ad revenues for the highly profitable time period kept shrinking. Rumors of a change had been in the air for weeks, but the ax fell suddenly: McRee was told on Sunday afternoon, after a week's vacation, not to come to work on Monday. "The show was a mess," she told TIME. "It wasn't fun to work on, and it wasn't fun to watch." ABC-News President David Westin acknowledges that drastic measures were needed. "[The show] simply was not getting better fast enough," he says. "I concluded that we needed to make a quantum leap rather than do it incrementally." After Connie Chung reportedly turned down the job, Sawyer (who will continue her prime-time duties as well) was lured back with the understanding that she and Gibson would serve for only "a few months"--enough time to right the ship and groom some permanent successors.

"We're not going to change the ratings or the competitive relationship with the Today show," Sawyer says, fervently trying to tamp down expectations. Rather, she says, the goal is to get the show back on course and "more connected to the rest of the news division." (Two former PrimeTime Live producers who have worked closely with Sawyer will be overseeing the show.) She denies that the move reflects any unhappiness with her role in prime time, where PrimeTime Live, the show she helped launch in 1989, has been subsumed under the rubric of 20/20, long associated with Barbara Walters. A person close to Sawyer says she took the job simply to "be a good soldier" and to help out news chief Westin, with whom she is close. (He recently got married at her house on Martha's Vineyard.)

Will it work? Colleagues point out that Sawyer, who starts her new job next Monday, is "not a morning person" (though she managed well enough as co-anchor of the CBS Morning News from 1981 to 1984). And while Westin talks about restoring the "warmth" and "sense of family" of GMA's glory days, Sawyer is not an obvious choice for gardening segments. Nor is it clear how the Sawyer interregnum, even if it boosts the ratings, will help the show once she leaves.

Yet her hard-news credentials and connections could at least make a mark in the short run by attracting some newsmaking interviews. Today executive producer Jeff Zucker claims he welcomes the competition--"It will reinvigorate us as well as them"--and doesn't fear Sawyer's well-stocked Rolodex. "The strength of the Today show can combat anybody's Rolodex," he says.

Ah, the smell of gunpowder in the morning. We've missed it.