May 19, 2022

Media Decoder Blog: With Roberts Back, ‘Good Morning America’ Looks to Widen Ratings Gap Over ‘Today’

Robin Roberts is back from a nearly six-month medical leave of absence, a fact that ABC’s “Good Morning America” celebrated with a special broadcast on Wednesday.

What comes next, both on camera and off, will be worth watching.

ABC is hopeful — though no one at the network said this aloud on Wednesday — that having Ms. Roberts back on the set will help “Good Morning America” widen the ratings gap with its archrival, NBC’s “Today” show. The next few months are crucial for both shows because a large amount of advertising inventory is sold in advance each spring.

“Today,” which until last year was solidly No. 1 in the morning ratings, makes more ad revenue than “G.M.A.” — as much as $150 million more, according to one firm’s estimate. But the tables have turned, and “G.M.A” is now beating “Today,” albeit slightly, among the 25- to 54-year-old viewers whom advertisers pay to reach. If “Good Morning America” can achieve up more victories, and more sizable victories, ABC will benefit.

There are also more practical, and more personal, reasons why the coming months are going to be noteworthy. Ms. Roberts, who left “G.M.A.” in August after she was found to have a rare blood disorder and subsequently underwent a grueling bone marrow transplant, is on the mend, but she does not have her full strength back yet. Her doctors say they are monitoring her recovery very carefully, in essence protecting her from herself, since by all accounts she wants to be back at work full time already.

“They’ve got their hands on the red brake,” said Ben Sherwood, the president of ABC News, in an interview during the broadcast on Wednesday.

That said, a doctor will not necessarily accompany her to work every day. The main precaution at the “Good Morning America” studio seems to be extra hand sanitizer to avoid the spread of germs that could sicken Ms. Roberts, whose immune system is still relatively weak.

“What we want everybody to know is, this is a journey where she’s going to be back some days, and she’ll take some time off some days,” Mr.
Sherwood said.

Tom Cibrowski, the top producer of “G.M.A.,” echoed Mr. Sherwood’s points in an interview after the show. “We are watching this very closely,” he said. Substitute hosts for Ms. Roberts will be on standby for the days she doesn’t feel well enough to host.

Ms. Roberts said she didn’t feel especially tired after her two-hour hosting blitz on Wednesday. She did notice some problems with her vision, however, since she had not been under the bright studio lights for such a long time since August.

Many curious viewers in addition to the show’s usual five million a day probably tuned in for her comeback show, since it was promoted for two straight weeks on the ABC network and on the Web. The network has a big opportunity to lure some of those casual viewers back on Monday, when it runs a special edition of “Good Morning America” the morning after the Academy Awards. ABC’s telecast of the awards show is usually the network’s highest-rated night of the year, and “G.M.A.” gets a big bump the morning after.

ABC said on Wednesday that Ms. Roberts, as well as the rest of the cast, would fly to Los Angeles for the awards over the weekend. Ms. Roberts will travel on a charter aircraft to minimize exposure to the germs of other passengers. She will appear on the network’s awards preshow and on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” afterward, then wake up early for “G.M.A.” on Monday.

“This anniversary of the Oscars is very meaningful for her,” Mr. Sherwood said, because it was there last year when she felt the first signs of the disorder that was diagnosed in April.

Before she leaves for Los Angeles, Ms. Roberts will tape an interview with Michelle Obama. It will be shown on ABC on Tuesday.

Mr. Sherwood, when asked if Ms. Roberts would ever return to a five-day-a-week schedule, said, “I think nothing would make Robin happier than getting back to five days a week.” He added, “She’s a tough competitor and a real athlete and wants to play every day.”

He declined to venture a guess about whether “G.M.A.” would widen its ratings lead now that Ms. Roberts, whom he often calls the show’s “team captain,” was back at least on a part-time basis.

“I have no idea what will happen,” he said. “We’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing.”

It’s possible to imagine a day six, 12 or 18 months from now when Ms. Roberts decides to step down from her daily duties on the show, whether for health reasons or for a mere change of pace. It’s also possible to imagine her staying in her chair for many years to come, given the competitive streak that Mr. Sherwood mentioned. Even while she was in the hospital, Ms. Roberts, a star basketball player in college, watched the overnight ratings for “Good Morning America” closely.

Asked if she would contemplate leaving the show a year from now, Ms. Roberts said, “One thing this journey has taught me is not to make predictions.”

In any case, “G.M.A.” said that the two women who filled in for Ms. Roberts last fall and winter, Elizabeth Vargas and Amy Robach, would remain regulars on the morning show. “G.M.A.” has an ensemble format with five co-hosts and a stable of regular contributors, reducing the reliance on any single person. “That will continue to be our strategy,” Mr. Cibrowski said on Wednesday.

During a champagne toast after the welcome-back broadcast, Ms. Roberts said to the staff members who surrounded her, “People ask me, ‘Why do you want to to back to work?’ ” She paused, then explained, “I feel like this is my third lease on life. I say, ‘I want to go back to work because of the people I work with, and the work that we do.’ We’re just getting started.”

Then she added with a smile, “Now we can resume regular programming.”

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