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In Frenzied News Cycle, George Stephanopoulos’ Presence on ABC Poised to Grow

Variety logo Variety 1/19/2017 Brian Steinberg
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George Stephanopoulos will on Friday be tasked with getting people to watch ABC from “Good Morning America” all the way through to a good portion of the rest of the day – hours and hours of live news coverage. He’s had plenty of opportunity to build up his stamina.

During a two-week stretch in late July, Stephanopoulos anchored ABC’s primetime coverage of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, all the while putting in regular appearances at his two usual roosts, “Good Morning America” and “This Week.” To cap it off, he and a team of producers flew to Colorado for a surprising exchange with then-candidate Donald Trump. In an interview with Stephanopoulos, Trump began to criticize Khizr and Ghazala Khan, two Muslim-Americans whose son was killed fighting for U.S. armed forces in Iraq. The interview would turn out to be a massive blunder for the man who would become President-elect – and Stephanopoulos had the exclusive.

Once the candidate left and the camera was off, “George let out the biggest yawn,” recalled Jonathan Greenberger, ABC News’ Washington Bureau Chief and a longtime Stephanopoulos confidante who is also executive producer of “This Week.” “It would not have been unreasonable for him to say, ‘I can’t get out to Colorado.  It’s just not do-able.’ But he saw this was an important story.” Even so, said Greenberger, the big scoop and the adrenaline couldn’t sustain the anchor any longer. “He was that tired.”

Stephanopoulos’ energy will be tested mightily in the days ahead. Most people know him as a steady presence on “GMA” and ABC’s Sunday-morning public affairs program, “This Week.” But as Donald Trump ascends to the office of U.S. President, there’s a growing sense Stephanopoulos may be needed more regularly in a role that many viewers probably aren’t aware he has. Since the summer of 2014, Stephanopoulos has been ABC News’ chief anchor, responsible for guiding viewers through the bulk of special reports on the biggest breaking events. When a shooting tragedy takes place or Election Night arrives, Stephanopoulos is supposed to the one who delivers the headlines to viewers.

“The news of this incoming administration has definitely added two hours of research to my day,” Stephanopoulos admitted over a sushi-and-salad lunch last week near ABC’s New York headquarters. “There’s just so much, and it’s not going to stop for a while.”

Indeed, the anchor said he recently reconfigured his smart phone so he gets a text alert any time the President-elect sends a tweet.  He expects to be called upon multiple times during the first few weeks of Trump’s time in office. He believes the new administration will be eager to make news about its initial plans, including the unveiling of Trump’s pick for a Supreme Court nominee. “I think there’s a good chance we’ll be breaking in a lot more during the day for some of these announcements, because it sure is a wholesale changeover,” he said.

And besides all that, he is working to snag big “gets,” like an interview of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Even “Good Morning America,” which often blends hard news with softer stuff, is shifting to accommodate the more serious current events, he said. “It’s a pretty significant difference,” he said. Where the show might have spent only the first four minutes of a 20-minute opening segment on hard news, that figure has shot up to 14 or 15 minutes, he said. “It’s a big difference every day, and I think it’s going to continue for some time.”

Stephanopoulos is known for his studious mien and is one of the industry’s quieter news personalities. NBC’s Matt Lauer has been known to tease his co-hosts during press interviews and CBS’ Charlie Rose can be downright garrulous. There’s something kinetic about the evening-news trio of Lester Holt, Scott Pelley and David Muir.  Stephanopoulos, as befitting someone who once served as a communications director for President Bill Clinton, chooses his words very carefully.

Those traits seem to inform his working life. The bulk of his time is not spent on the air, but preparing for when he must be. A famous early riser, Stephanopoulos is often at “GMA’s” Times Square Studio by 3:30 in the morning, studying up on what has happened overnight. He takes a break once the show is done, but then heads up to his office to do more research and interviews. “You have to be doing your homework all the time,” he explains. “Once the news breaks, it’s all what you know in that instant.”

ABC broke with tradition when it named Stephanopoulos to the role. For decades, the evening-news anchor has served as the “face” of the network, and over at CBS and NBC, that custom continues. Lester Holt handles the bulk of those duties for NBC, not Matt Lauer. And Scott Pelley is typically the go-to person for CBS’ coverage of big national moments.

Shows like “GMA,” “Today” and “CBS This Morning,” however, have grown in importance to the networks in recent years. They typically snare a younger viewer and bring in millions of dollars in advertising.

“Morning programs are the real profit engine of the networks,” said Andrew Heyward, the former CBS News president who is now a visiting researcher at MIT Media Lab. “That wasn’t always necessarily reflected in the prestige that accrues to the morning anchors.” In the first nine months of 2016, “GMA” captured nearly $312.2 million viewers, compared with $166.8 million for ABC’s “World News Tonight.”

ABC News wasn’t considering the morning dynamic when it named Stephanopoulos to the role, says James Goldston, president of the Walt Disney-owned unit. Instead, executives appreciated his work ethic and depth of knowledge – and his ability to be ready quickly. The network and its affiliates “want ABC News to be active on all of these stories, want us to take the lead with special reports and breaking in,” he says. “To some extent, the bar has been lowered as the interest in the news and the momentum goes up.”

Stephanopoulos says he’s prepared for the difficulties that seem to be inherent in coverage of the new Trump era, in which facts are sometimes ignored or called fake – even when they are not. “It’s definitely a challenge,” he says. “You have to be, I think, more focused and disciplined in the coverage, and be willing to be tough when you need to be, demand answers when you have to, and not be distracted by things that may matter less.” Sometimes, news anchors have to be ready to call false assertions lies, he notes, or prepare themselves with videotaped evidence of officials contradicting themselves.

To get through the rigors of his day, Stephanopoulos often chews his way through packets and packets of Dentyne Ice – sometimes even if he’s on camera.  “I can hide it pretty well,” he says, trying to demonstrate.

Some of his duties aren’t as weighty. “Good Morning America” has introduced a live audience to its studio during its 8 p.m. hour – an expansion from just the show’s last 30 minutes – and Stephanopoulos says he enjoys the format’s freewheeling feel. “It’s an entirely different sort of psychology when you’re out there in front of an audience for an hour, he says. “It’s a completely different muscle.”

Until the news cycle settles down – an unlikely prospect – viewers may have to get used to seeing George Stephanopoulos at any given moment. “Usually the plans for chief anchor are not up to me,” he says. “It’s sort of up to the world.”

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