By Felix Gillette
On the morning of Wednesday, Feb. 10, George Stephanopoulos was sitting in the Good Morning America studio, overlooking Times Square, crossing his legs. Lady Gaga and Cyndi Lauper sat a few feet away. Outside a blizzard was swirling. Viewers were snowed in.
Stephanopoulos sized up his guests. Lauper was wearing a black floppy outfit with lacy sleeves. Lady Gaga wore a crown of safety pins. Or was it a nest? The two pop stars were holding hands. “You are all the glam Thelma and Louise,” Stephanopoulos said.
It was Stephanopoulos’ 49th birthday. What a crazy year it had been! Just last night, on the eve of the snowstorm, he had gone on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report. Predictably, that joker had asked him a variation of the same thing he’d been getting repeatedly since December, when ABC News announced that he was leaving the Sunday-morning politics circuit to replace Diane Sawyer as the lead anchor on GMA. Why get yourself mixed up with morning television?
If past was precedent, GMA was a stepping stone to becoming the anchor of ABC World News, as Charles Gibson and now Sawyer had already proved. But there was more to it than that. In this long-tail world of modern media, who got to be a generalist anymore? Maybe there was a new prestige in generalism. He told Colbert that he now can do hard and soft news. He gets to interview the president and Lady Gaga. “It is fun to stretch,” he said.
Ever since Dec. 14, Stephanopoulos’ first morning on GMA, he’s been testing every muscle in his body to push beyond the political news. Along the way, he’s interviewed the 17-year-old star of The Wizards of Waverly Place, a jewelry thief, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, a cyber-bullying expert, Jackie Collins, a pregnant Amy Adams and an aerial performer who’d survived a scary fall. He’s discussed nail polish, floral arrangements, head lice, Oscar picks, pregnancy. He’s received a lesson from Emeril Lagasse on how to cook chicken with Dijon herb sauce. He’s tested out a touchless soap dispenser.
From the get-go, various observers have questioned Stephanopoulos’ suitability for the GMA job. Call it the reverse Katie Couric syndrome. As in, isn’t he just a little too qualified for morning TV? And yet let’s not forget it’s in the family. In 2001, Stephanopoulos married the actor Ali Wentworth, who among other things had impersonated Sharon Stone on In Living Color; played Jerry Seinfeld’s girlfriend “Schmoopie” on “The Soup Nazi” episode; and written The Wasp Cookbook. Beginning in September 2003, Wentworth had co-hosted a short-lived syndicated talk show, called Living It Up. Sex was a favorite topic. Oversharing was the norm. Her approach toward television was completely different from that of her husband. “He’s a very private guy,” she told The Observer at the time. “And I’ve always used whatever was going on in my life as material, where he has used everything in his life to make sure it doesn’t become material.”
In front of cameras, Stephanopoulos has always been emotionally opaque. Throughout The War Room, the 1993 documentary about the Clinton presidential campaign team, which contributed significantly to Stephanopoulos’ growing fame, the young director of communications is seen working alongside his friend and mentor, James Carville. Stylistically, the two men are a study in opposites. Carville is emotionally volcanic. Stephanopoulos is reserved.
Some 17 years later, the War Room documentarians say they’re not surprised at Stephanopoulos’ latest career move. “He’s much better suited to it than someone like, say, James Carville,” director Chris Hegedus told The Observer. “George has always had a wide curiosity in a lot of things. We once told George that we had done a film on John DeLorean, and George was like, ‘Wow—the gull-wing door car!’”
“He has such a winning, boyish quality,” she added. Some are less enthusiastic. “My line on George is that he is likable, but he’s not knowable,” esteemed Newsday critic Verne Gay said. “In those jobs, you’ve got to be both. He’s obviously a really smart guy. He’s got all the qualifications, times 10. He’s highly professional. When the guy smiles and laughs, you like him. But when he’s onscreen, you just don’t know who he is. He’s a real cipher.”
Self-editing is great in politics. It’s fine for the host of a Sunday news show. And once upon a time, not so long ago in American life, in the epoch now known as pre-Snooki, public discretion was considered a moral virtue. But now we live in the heyday of indiscretion. Morning television is part of the game. The genre demands full exposure from its anchors. On-air colonoscopies are the gold standard. Anchors must create the illusion of openness. “With George, there’s a wall there,” Gay said. Many years ago, before Stephanopoulos studied Christian ethics as a Rhodes Scholar at Cambridge, before he made his name in national politics, and before he left the White House for ABC News, he spent his early years preparing for life as a priest. His father was a priest in the Greek Orthodox Church. So too his grandfather. And even years after eschewing the priesthood for politics and media, a sense of emotional reserve befitting a man of the cloth still hangs about him. Early in his career, that sensibility served him well. In his early 30s, as the communications director for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential run, Stephanopoulos regularly fought to keep the skeletons in Clinton’s closet from derailing everything.
But there are no altar boys in morning television, and no real walls. In the coming weeks and months, to succeed in his new job, Stephanopoulos must pull off the opposite trick. Instead of burying the messy, private details of American public figures (including his own), his task will be to coax those details to light.
How’s it going so far? Although to date, ABC News has taken a low-key approach toward promoting the new team of Stephanopoulos, Robin Roberts, Sam Champion and Juju Chang, they put on the full-court press for this article.
“I think he’s doing remarkably well,” said ABC News President David Westin.
“It’s going spectacular,” said Jim Murphy, the executive producer of GMA. “What’s surprised me is his range. … He has no problem dealing with everything. He does his homework. And he cares to death. It all works out.” “We’ve had a smooth start, and we’re having fun,” Stephanopoulos said.
Stephanopoulos, who called in to comment at the eleventh hour, said he talks about the show with his wife all the time. “Her real background is in improv. She’s terrific in teaching me …” He paused. “How to go with it.”
He went on. “When it feels right for the story and appropriate, I do it,” he added. “I think it’s important not to force it, but not to block it, either. So when I was doing a segment with Dr. Richard Besser about anti-depressants, I was happy to talk about that, and my experience. When he did a segment on head lice, and my family had just come out of a week of being de-loused, we talked about that. If it makes sense for the story, I’m open to it.”
Anchoring GMA has always been a high-pressure job. But it’s now more important for ABC News than ever. Whereas NBC News can lean on the large profits of CNBC and MSNBC, ABC News has no cable news channels to provide subscription fees and must rely heavily on GMA to generate revenue. As such, it is of dire importance to Stephanopoulos and all of his colleagues that GMA hold on to (if not increase) its viewers.
So far this year, that hasn’t happened. During the first five weeks of 2010, GMA has averaged 1,948,000 viewers in the 25-54 demographic on which news divisions sell ads. In the first five weeks of 2009, with Diane Sawyer still at the helm, GMA averaged 2,172,000. That’s a year-to-year decline of 10.4 percent. A significant dip in eyeballs, when every last penny of advertising counts. ABC News executives point out that it’s still very early in the Stephanopoulos era and that, year-to-year, all the morning news shows are losing viewers.
Westin said he chose Stephanopoulos for the job, in part, to beef up the substance of the show. “George has the qualities which are essential to a successful morning anchor,” he said. “He’s very intelligent. He’s very curious. He has a wide range of interests. And he has a natural way about him.”
“I think people should also be careful of underestimating George,” he added.
Back in the studio on Wednesday morning, the GMA producers treated their new anchor to a birthday surprise. With Stephanopoulos looking on, the cameras zoomed in on Wentworth, who had popped up in the studio, wearing a blond wig. She promptly launched into an impression of Diane Sawyer. A few seconds later, she tore off her wig and removed her jacket, revealing a leopard-print dress. “Oh, honey, George, I never, ever get to see you at home,” she said. “I love you.” Wentworth mounted the table and began crawling on her hands and knees toward the camera. “I shaved my legs and made you a steak.” This was the job Stephanopoulos had signed up for. He blushed.
“Happy birthday, baby,” Wentworth said, gyrating her hips for the camera.
“Welcome to morning TV, George,” Roberts chimed in. “Welcome to morning TV.”