It’s 10:30 on a Sunday night in mid-April, and ABC TV’s Andrea Canning is gently grilling a 17-year-old girl about the serial killer who allegedly murdered her sister. The hunt for the prostitute-killing psychopath is big news in New York; Canning has just snagged the first on-air interview with the Buffalo, N.Y., teenager who says she received calls on her sister’s cell from the man two years ago. The girl is filmed in shadow to protect her identity. Before tape rolls at an ABC studio in Manhattan, Canning expresses her sympathy, then breaks the ice by joking that some days she’d like to be filmed in shadow. “No hair and makeup!” The southern Ontario native then bonds with the girl’s entourage: “I grew up knowing too much about Buffalo news,” she says. Then she gets down to extracting enough footage for a one-minute clip for her regular stint on Good Morning America (GMA) the next day. It’s a challenge: the girl’s answers are monosyllabic. The scene has a mutually predatory aspect to it. The lurking question, “Why are you risking your life?” isn’t asked. The answer is obvious: it’s her 15 seconds of fame.
For Canning, the girl is a minor prize in her roster of high-profile “gets,” a list that includes fugitive actor Randy Quaid and his wife, Evi, 13-year-old Rebecca Black, whose song Friday elicited Internet snark, and, most famously, an unhinged Charlie Sheen. Canning’s 90-minute February sit-down with the actor, his first network interview after being fired, was a sensation. Sheen’s mash-up spoof of the encounter, now part of his North American tour, was a YouTube hit. It propelled Canning’s rising star at a time when it’s not enough for network news to simply report the news; it now has to make news itself. Celebrities and scandal are the ideal vehicles. “Gadhafi is important but Sheen pays the bills,” Canning says, quoting an ABC executive.
Coaxing ratings gold from Malibu’s “warlock” is a world away from Canning’s childhood in the Collingwood, Ont., area, where her grandfather founded the Blue Mountain ski resort, now run by her father. A “shy kid” who skied competitively, she majored in psychology at the University of Western Ontario before a summer acting course at the University of California led to the TV journalism program at Toronto’s Ryerson University. A gig as a Baywatch intern (David Hasselhoff remains “a good friend”) paved her way to an intern position at the tabloid TV show Extra. While in L.A., Canning shared a house with the then-unknown Ryan Seacrest, who was “very driven,” she recalls. “We say there was something in the water in that house.” Extra provided her first taste of the adrenalin rush of breaking scandal when she confirmed a 1997 phone tip that the woman accusing sportscaster Marv Albert of sexual assault faced criminal indictments.
Canning plotted her on-air ascent strategically: she babysat for a colleague in return for help with her resumé tape, then hired a voice coach who also provided advice on hair, makeup and clothes. She was hired as a reporter at CKVR in Barrie, Ont. Cracking the Toronto TV market was difficult, Canning says. Sportsnet commentator Kevin Quinn, a CKVR colleague, recalls it differently: “We were all, ‘Toronto’s the big time.’ But Andrea’s aspirations were higher.” She’d stay late to review her tapes, he says: “She had two jobs: her regular job and improving her craft.”
Canning moved on to a series of small U.S. stations: West Palm Beach, Fla., Cincinnati, then an ABC affiliate in Washington. ABC executive John Green, then producing GMA’s weekend edition, recalls her constantly pitching ideas: “They were impressive, very buzzy.” Canning even volunteered to produce her own segments, unorthodox for on-air talent, Green says.
She took a pay cut in 2006 to move to New York, where she proved her versatility reporting for GMA, as well as for ABC’s news and current affairs programs. Canning takes particular pride in debunking a much-publicized 2009 “pregnancy pact” among 17 Massachusetts high school students. “It didn’t add up,” she says. She tracked down five pregnant girls who confirmed the pregnancies were coincidental and that no pact existed.
“Andrea’s an old-style reporter in a new business,” says Martha Raddatz, ABC’s chief foreign correspondent, who met Canning in Washington. Green attributes her success to a combination of talent, gumption and industry: “She’s one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever come across.”
Canning, who lives across the street from ABC’s Upper West Side headquarters and works 12-hour days, presents as a familiar stereotype—the TV network news careerist played by Holly Hunter in Broadcast News and Rachel McAdams in Morning Glory, a film Canning has seen twice. “Oh my God, I love that movie,” she says. A scene in which a hard-nosed newsman turned reluctant morning show co-host played by Harrison Ford makes a frittata on-air brought tears to her eyes, she says. “If you’re not willing to do that stuff, you’re not going to succeed.”
True to that script, TV played a central role in Canning’s 2008 marriage to U.S. marine Tony Bancroft. Raddatz, who’d listened to Canning bemoan her love life, met Bancroft in Iraq in 2006 and set the two up online. Frustrated when Bancroft, a fighter pilot who was once an extra on The West Wing, didn’t send a photo, Canning bought DVDs of the show and tracked down the episode. They have two girls. “I’ve got my officer and a gentleman,” she says of her husband, who now works in finance.
Onscreen, Canning’s poised, placid demeanour can come off as cool, aloof. In person, she’s animated and engaging. Colleagues speak of her with respect and fondness. She admits online comments about her can be hurtful but are also “instructive.” Of the heat she got for reading nasty comments made about Rebecca Black in front of the girl, she says: “I should have said, ‘Are you okay with me reading this?’ first. But she loved the interview. We hugged after.”
The scrutiny has increased exponentially since the Sheen interview, which ABC’s Green calls Canning’s “breakthrough.” Their encounter resulted from a GMA spot Canning presented on the actor’s radio rants. “After, I thought, if only I had his cellphone I could convince him to give an interview,” she says. Minutes later an email landed from Sheen’s publicist, saying the actor had seen her report and wanted to talk. “I was putting out my best pitch, and he said, ‘All right, I’ll do it with you.’ I didn’t believe him.” A week later, a newly fired Sheen called and said, “You’re up,” she says. “I still have the message.”
Now she also has a letter from Martin Sheen, Charlie’s father. “It was really kind and supportive,” she says. Canning, who’s trying to snag a behind-the-scenes exclusive of Sheen’s tour, shrugs off his interview spoof: “I thought it was funny,” she says.
Always looking ahead, Canning cultivates relationships. She corresponds with Michael Douglas’s son, Cameron, who’s serving prison time for drug possession. For the past eight years, she has written every two months to convicted murderer Scott Peterson, despite no response.
As for her own future, Canning cites Diane Sawyer as an inspiration. She has also turned to ABC doyenne Barbara Walters for advice, while angling for a shot as a guest panellist on her show The View. Canning doesn’t shy from self-promotion; she even wrote to Maclean’s, offering herself as a timely subject.
It’s a constant hustle. A GMA co-host spot doesn’t interest her, she claims. “If they offered me it tomorrow? Great. But I’m not plotting.” The only job Canning says she covets comes as a surprise: co-hosting CTV’s Canada AM. “I love Canada,” she says. “I think it would be fun to be the main person in my home country.” The show could use a shakeup, she says: “It could use more energy. But maybe they don’t want that.” She has even checked out co-host Seamus O’Regan’s CV. “He’s a smart guy. I think, ‘I could have fun with you.’ ” She pauses. “Bev will hate me,” she says, referring to O’Regan’s co-host, Beverly Thomson.
Canning, whose ABC contract is up next year, is politic. “I love this network,” she says. “I don’t want people thinking I’m trying to leave.” Yet she says she wouldn’t miss the high-octane pace and would rather live at Blue Mountain than in New York City: “I want a house. I want a backyard.” She knows expressing such overt ambition will affront some Canadians: “They’ll think, ‘Who does she think she is?’ Which is not what I want them to think, honestly.”
Raddatz expresses shock her friend would even consider leaving. “Oh, no. She completely loves her job and is only going to get more airtime. Maybe she means 10 years from now.” Maybe. Green says “the sky’s the limit” for Canning in the U.S. Whatever the truth, Andrea Canning has figured out how to keep us watching.