I am not sure why I was eager to see Morning Glory. Maybe it was the same thing that drives any addict to test their level of recovery—exposure to what got them hooked. In my case, I am a news junkie who once hung out perilously close to where the hot steam escapes from the pressure cooker of network TV news. Now, here I was watching what claims to be a light romantic comedy about the inside workings of Americans’ morning television. I wondered if the hunger would return.
In the film, a plucky producer played by Rachel McAdams is handed the unenviable task of rescuing Daybreak, a morning show with plummeting ratings, anchored by a hard-news curmudgeon (Harrison Ford) and a former beauty-queen co-host (Diane Keaton). The writer of Morning Glory, Aline Brosh McKenna, did her research: that combination is typecasting for morning shows. There are many insider references in the script, like the intense competition for guest bookings. Even the name of the fictional network (IBS) rings true. Irritable bowel syndrome is also, uncomfortably, a medical condition common to those working the early shift.
Morning Glory portrays network TV’s most competitive time slot as an arena for public floggings, conflicting egos, and insecure executives. It is hardly pure fiction. Late in November, every host on the real CBS Early Show was fired and replaced. Earlier that month, a former executive producer of Good Morning America, reviewing Morning Glory, ripped into Charles Gibson and, in my view, slandered him for being a stick-in-the-mud who made her life hell. That wasn’t the Charlie I worked alongside at GMA, then replaced, then was replaced by after I was fired. If you had to read that last line twice you’re catching on.
It took me years to repair what nine months as GMA’s male co-host did to my confidence and career. I was offered the prestigious post in a hasty mid-afternoon phone call from the then-president of ABC News, David Westin. I remember thinking, “Shouldn’t this be a bigger deal than a short call?” I should have listened to that instinct. Too much change in TV is never a good thing, and ABC had quickly jettisoned a seasoned on-air team, replaced a homey set with a fake chrome Manhattan condo, and plunked two people on its art deco sofa who barely knew one another. That a Canadian had been hired to chirp “Good morning America!” became painfully obvious every time I ad-libbed about winter fun on toboggans and cleaning out eavestroughs. It was quickly apparent my co-host, Texan Lisa McRee, and I were struggling to develop the illusive chemistry of morning-TV news. We weren’t good at faking a married couple, brother and sister, or the holy grail of morning TV casting: secret lovers. We’d been handed a shotgun marriage, and to no one’s surprise had trouble bonding with four million viewers watching every eyebrow twitch and forced smile.
True to Morning Glory, the producers were also convinced the key to a ratings turnaround was to make the show “fluffier.” After several months of recipes, fitness tips, and how-to segments, they abruptly declared GMA “would do more hard news now.”
It was too late. The New York gossip pages were filled with stories of network executives auditioning replacements lest their careers go down with ours. There is a scene in the movie when Rachel McAdams’s producer is called on the carpet by the president of the division, played by Jeff Goldblum. Where he had been fun and welcoming nine months earlier, now he was icy and threatening. That scene cut pretty close to my truth. In Hollywood’s version of a morning show, the ratings reverse their slide through hilariously perilous stunts by the hapless weatherman, Ford finding his footing by breaking a good story, and Keaton warming up to him. There’s even hints of a tryst in the dressing room.
It didn’t end that way for us. We got another hasty phone call saying we were being replaced by Diane Sawyer and Charlie. When GMA celebrated its 35th anniversary last year, Lisa and I were nowhere to be found in its official history. We never happened. More than a decade later, Good Morning America still trails the Today Show and another new anchor team is struggling to find its footing.
We had our own Hollywood ending, though. Lisa created and hosted a program for public television in California and is raising the beautiful children she dreamed of having when we worked together. I have just finished a rewarding run establishing Global National and am ready for new challenges. As for the movie? I learned I can laugh about those years now, but that I still feel a thrill watching someone break a big story and miss the rewarding feeling of succeeding as a team. Most of all, however, it made me grateful to be a viewer of morning TV instead of making it. For the survivors, there is little glory to be had.
Kevin Newman co-hosted GMA from 1998-1999 and is now the founder of NewMan Media Ltd.