Late last Friday, shortly after ABC News announced that GMA3 anchors T.J. Holmes and Amy Robach would be leaving the network, bringing an end to an elongated and salacious made-for-Page-Six spectacle regarding their extramarital affair, I received word about a rumor ricocheting through the news division. There was a widely held suspicion that Disney executives were considering relieving Kim Godwin, the ABC News chief, of her duties. The theory behind the speculation was that Godwin had fundamentally mismanaged a mini-scandal—that she’d moved indecisively in plotting Holmes and Robach’s punishment, which exacerbated a stupid daytime tabloid story into an unabating organization headache, frustrating colleagues, annoying senior management, and providing an unforced error at a time when Disney faces significant headaches and secular challenges.
As I’ve noted in the past, Godwin has her detractors at ABC, fairly or not. Some see her as slightly disengaged, promoting a work-life-balance credo that’s inconsistent with the sort of life-is-work mantra that has long defined the culture of TV news and catapulted the Jeff Zucker and Chris Lichts of the world from superproducers to C.E.Os. Also, of course, this is the province of endorphine-fueled aggrieved personalities—the denizens of a vanity business who often fear the worst, perhaps because they’ve seen it play out in the past. Regardless, it was hard not to feel some sympathy for Godwin. There isn’t a divisional president on Earth who would want to turn away from their onerous and various day-to-day responsibilities to manage an innocuous, consensual affair between two B-level talents.
But in the world of television news, especially late stage television news, that’s a part of the job, and many inside the industry, and inside the building, felt that Godwin avoided a decisive judgment at the expense of the news division’s broader reputation. At the very least, it was an endless distraction, an annoying pain in the neck.
Regardless, the rumor was not true, according to well placed sources. But by the time it had subsided, another rumor had popped up in its place: Disney wouldn’t be removing Godwin, but it would be giving her additional oversight in the form of a chairman—possibly Debra OConnell, a Disney veteran with news experience who is in need of a new org chart home following Bob Iger’s post-Chapek restructuring. The new layer would have the added benefit of further insulating leadership in Burbank from the headaches in New York. At Disney, strategic moves come on the board and off the board all the time, as befits the economy’s most important media company. As I learned today, however, this rumor is also not true—at least for now.
On some level, it was probably foolish to assume that such a low-level problem would warrant Burbank’s attention. On the totem pole of Iger’s challenges—the Hulu deal, ESPN’s future, Lucasfilm’s pipeline, Nelson Peltz, etcetera—the Robach-Holmes scandal is veritably subterranean. On the other hand, the feverish speculation about Godwin’s fate in certain corners of ABC News is understandable given all the frustrations with her leadership: the casual hours and Instagrammed vacations, the group-singing kumbaya gestures, the unsolicited swag from her alma mater, Florida A&M University.
It was not unreasonable of this cohort to assume that her perceived mishandling of a public controversy—even one at the farthest reaches of the Disney empire—would be exactly the sort of thing to finally force Burbank to make a change. The fact that Iger happened to be back in the building around the time of the predicament only made that seem more likely. After all, many know Iger’s umbilical connection to this part of the business. He grew up at ABC/CapCities and cared about the broadcast product in a way Chapek never did.
And, truthfully, the damage of the GMA3 situation goes well beyond two months of bad press. In television news, stars are groomed over the course of several years. Though Robach and Holmes may have been a thousand miles away from Good Morning America in the public consciousness, they were also among a very small group of talent that could have conceivably stepped up to take over when Robin Roberts or George Stephanopoulos eventually stepped down from the main show. Indeed, their departure highlights the reality that GMA has an empty bench. Cecilia Vega, a hyper-talented ABC News correspondent, fled to CBS’s 60 Minutes earlier this month—arguably another casualty of Godwin’s tenure. And of course before all this, NBC News stole Tom Llamas, another marquee talent in training, back from ABC. The departure of all these talents has left the question of succession at GMA, the news network’s key revenue driver, wide open.
Don & Kaitlan
Recent events at CNN’s morning show have shown how important it is to groom talent. In recent months, I’ve reported on some tensions between co-hosts Don Lemon and Kaitlan Collins, perhaps stemming from his frustrations with having to share the morning spotlight rather than flying solo in primetime, and her relative inexperience behind the anchor desk. This week, The New York Post reported that those tensions boiled over into an off-air tiff following an episode I’d reported on, in December, during which Collins was repeatedly trying to cut in as Lemon was reading breaking news off the teleprompter.
The Post reports that Lemon “screamed” at Collins, leaving her feeling “rattled.” The paper may have overhyped the details here; nevertheless, Lemon definitely got pissed, and Collins definitely felt bad. The tension was real. And even to this day, it’s quite obvious that the show is still working out its kinks. But arguably that’s neither Lemon nor Collins’s fault—it’s Chris Licht’s responsibility. And while the CNN C.E.O. recently took his on-air talent to a Knicks game to break the ice and present a positive public face, the TV news industry (and especially the morning show business) is littered with endless examples of backstage tensions nuking on-air performance.
After all, Don was a sleek prime time figure who was never acclimated to the morning audience, while Kaitlan was a peppy, hard-charging White House correspondent who wasn’t acclimated to her new role, either. But the responsibility for getting them both acclimated to their new roles, and to one another, lay on the shoulders of Licht—and he nevertheless threw them onto the air before they had worked out the kinks, all while reassuring them that it was okay for this to be a work in progress. Alas, Licht’s reassurances can’t always defray bad press and personal frustrations, which have a way of wearing on talent—especially when the show is still trying to figure its way out of a ratings deficit.
Licht’s solution to CNN This Morning’s early setbacks has been to rid the show of its current executive producer—Eric Hall, a veteran of the Zucker era—and bring in one of his old CBS colleagues, Chris Russell. This may indeed help smooth things out; on the other hand, the show was already being overseen by two of the most experienced hands in morning television: Licht himself, and his longtime deputy, Ryan Kadro, who recently re-joined Licht after brief stints at Quibi and The Recount.
But there’s a silver lining here. In a previous generation—one with more generous carriage fees, before O.T.T. and D.T.C—television executives could be replaced after Page Six stories or sloppy programming moves. But in this new metamorphosing era, when revenue is declining and managing profitability matters, Godwin and Licht aren’t going anywhere. In fact, it’s their job to be the Lewis and Clark of this new TV news downsizing, for better or worse. Because, if for no other reason, their big bosses are dealing with a much bigger version of the very same problem.