Competitiveness drives Stephanopoulos at ABC

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By DAVID BAUDER, Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — George Stephanopoulos doesn't really get days off. He gets hours.

The co-host of ABC's "Good Morning America" during the week and host of the Sunday political talk show "This Week" has both shows at such competitive crossroads this spring that his bosses are reluctant to give him time off.

"GMA" snapped the "Today" show's 852-week winning streak the week before last, an event that set off parties at ABC (and a congratulatory steak and chocolate cake at the Stephanopoulos household). "This Week" is also slowly gaining ground lost in the ratings when Stephanopoulos was replaced at that show by Christiane Amanpour in 2010.

"For him, it's a win-win," said one of those bosses, ABC News executive Jon Banner. "He gets a lot of experiences and is able to dig into what he loves in bits and pieces every day of the week. And try to see his family at some points in between."

It's not a schedule built for the long term, but it's made him the man of the moment at ABC News.

Stephanopoulos compartmentalizes. He's in before dawn on weekdays to prepare for "Good Morning America," and is on the air between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. Then he takes some time off, maybe goes to the gym. His afternoons are spent on political reporting for "World News" and lining up Sunday guests. Friday afternoon is his time of intense study for "This Week," although that usually spills into Saturdays. Sunday is the show.

Oddly enough, only a small number of ABC viewers are aware of this schedule.

"In the last three months, I've had all these people come up to me on the street and say, 'I'm so glad you're back at ABC,'" Stephanopoulos said. "That's the Sunday audience. My (weekday) morning audience has no idea that I'm on on Sunday. It's just different worlds. The overlap is very small."

He freely admits he would not be able to handle both jobs if "This Week" hadn't moved the bulk of its operations from Washington to New York since he took over in January.

The idea of moving one of the Sunday public affairs shows out of Washington would have once seemed highly controversial, yet ABC achieved it with hardly anyone noticing. Competitors "Meet the Press" on NBC and "Face the Nation" on CBS remain in Washington. The "This Week" discussion roundtable, which on Sunday included Keith Olbermann, is done in New York. Technology enables Stephanopoulos to conduct interviews remotely. "It doesn't matter where you do the show," Banner said.

ABC's Sunday viewership is up 11 percent over last year, the Nielsen company said. In an election year, "Meet the Press" (9 percent) and "Face the Nation" (7 percent) are up, too.

If Stephanopoulos experienced any buyer's remorse about "Good Morning America," he doesn't say so. He extracted a promise from then-ABC News President David Westin when named co-host with Robin Roberts in December 2009 that the show would toughen up and become more newsy.

Since then, "GMA" has arguably gone in the opposite direction, particularly during the second hour. With the audience by then more than 70 percent female, Lara Spencer, Josh Elliott and Sam Champion take a larger role with a looser format focused more on pop culture.

"I was expecting different, there's no question about that," Stephanopoulos said. "I wasn't sure how it was going to go. You never can be. But I've been pleasantly surprised that we've been able to make as much progress as we have. It was actually less difficult than I expected it to be to find my comfort zone inside all of it, in part because going in I got to keep on doing the other things I liked doing."

With a looser format, Stephanopoulos said that if he thinks a story is silly he can readily say so on the air.

"George wants to win in the morning, like we all do and George understands that a morning television show has different parts at different times in the morning," said Tom Cibrowski, senior executive producer of "Good Morning America." ''I would contend that the program is just as newsy as it always has been. George has had the opportunity to interview countless presidents and newsmakers since he's been there. There's nothing he likes more than being able to drive the news cycle with his interviews."

Doing both shows makes it easier to do each one, Stephanopoulos said.

"The great thing about 'GMA' is it's a lot of broadcasting," he said. "You get better by doing it. You learn the rhythms and you're up on everything — even things you never thought you'd be up on. That makes it more fun to dive deep on the 'This Week' stuff. I can relax and have fun with the other stuff on 'GMA.'"

Given the trends, Stephanopoulos said he'd been expecting ABC to end the "Today" winning streak this spring, but he had anticipated that moment would come in May.

His political instincts were at play last Monday, when preliminary Nielsen numbers indicated ABC had won the previous week. ABC News leaders were cautious in their reaction, waiting for the release of more definitive ratings on Thursday. But Stephanopoulos noticed that "Today" executive producer Jim Bell had issued a congratulatory quote — effectively a losing candidate's concession speech — and issued his own celebratory Tweet that made most stories about the achievement.

Stephanopoulos now generally takes one weekend off from "This Week" a month. But if he anticipated one week's win on "Good Morning America" would allow him to begin regularly taking a day off during the week, he may have to think again.

"You win one week of something," Banner said, "it makes you want to win more."

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David Bauder is on email at dbauder(at)ap.org or Twitter (at)dbauder.

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