A troubled run on Good Morning America: An excerpt from 'All Out'

An excerpt from 'All Out', by Kevin Newman and Alex Newman

Kevin Newman and Alex Newman

Kevin Newman and Alex Newman

Even as Alex Newman was being bullied and struggling to fit in, his father debuted as the host of Good Morning America (GMA), in a move that looked to many like the culmination of a bright career as a broadcaster. In this excerpt from All Out, Kevin Newman details the show’s troubles, which began long before his arrival, and his sometimes ridiculous tenure there, which took him from de-Canadianizing lessons to cheaply dyed eyelashes to some incredible moments with his son. Read our full interview with Kevin and Alex Newman on All Out, here.

Three months after my debut, the decline of GMA was the talk of the town. Someone inside ABC was leaking to the papers, and almost every day “Page Six” ran an item about some gaffe I’d made or gleeful gossip about our ratings, which were tanking to unprecedented depths. There was ongoing speculation about who’d replace me, and when. It got so bad that even Jeff Zucker, who ran Today, felt moved to express sympathy. “I was here at a time when we got a lot of unfortunate press and a lot of unfortunate rumours swirling around us,” he said, reminding reporters of the debacle when Deborah Norville replaced Jane Pauley. “I know how hard that is to live through. I feel sympathy for people who have to have a bomb squad open their newspapers every day.”

A bomb squad would have been helpful. Security guards, too. The whispering and snickering, whether around the water cooler or in the papers—I hated it, but tried to act unfazed. At home, my wife, Cathy, tried to support me, pointing out that it wasn’t all my fault, and that despite everything, there had still been some good interviews and good shows. Intellectually I knew she was right, but it didn’t make much difference to how I felt, which was humiliated.

Especially after being told to “man up” by the executive who’d hired  me, in the  first and only face-to-face meeting he ever arranged with us while Lisa McRee and I co-hosted. Bizarrely, though our ratings were in free-fall and GMA was the most important revenue-generator in the news division, we had almost no contact with or coaching from senior executives. It was as though no one wanted to get his hands dirty trying to fix the problem, for fear we’d take him down with us.

Four months in, ABC News president David  Westin finally summoned me and Lisa to his office. He looked at me and barked, “You’ve got to be more like a quarterback. Tougher, stronger, more masculine.” Then he looked at her and said, “And you have to do your homework, know what you’re talking about.” I think she was as shocked and embarrassed as I was. We’d thought of ourselves as journalists, but clearly he viewed us as character actors. Or maybe caricatures. Lisa was from Texas, so she’d been cast as the head cheerleader, and I had broad shoulders, so I’d been cast as captain of the football team. But that wasn’t who I was. I’d been hired because I can think on my feet, not because I was buff or hearty or all-American. Westin concluded by telling us we needed to work together as a team and he wanted to see the changes by tomorrow morning.

Stunned, Lisa and I retreated to our offices to try to shake it off, and then met with the senior producers for a soul-searching session that lasted well into the day. We talked as a group about how we could create a better show and what we needed to make it work. I remember asking for a looser template, more time for both of us to show our personalities and work on developing some on-air rapport. Westin’s dressing-down  had forced us together, but expecting two green hosts to rescue a failing show and vindicate his first major decisions as news president was naive. The problems with the show went much deeper than us.

When I’d agreed to  host GMA, I’d known I’d be working around the clock for at least the first couple of years. But I’d underestimated, hugely, the distance the job would put between me and my family. We still lived modestly, in the same house, and the neighbours didn’t treat me any differently. But the gulf between how I actually felt, and the strength and confidence I was trying to project, was getting wider every day. My career was exploding in a uniquely public fashion; the hurt and embarrassment were so deep, and the effort I needed to make in order to deny my own emotional reality was so strenuous, that I had very little left for my family. Even when I was present, part of me wasn’t really there.

I saw an opportunity to make it up to Alex, at least, when the first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn, was given the chance to do so again on the space shuttle Discovery. Alex and I shared a passion for space and science fiction, and GMA had plans to broadcast Glenn’s October 1998 launch live from Cape Canaveral. I asked for a pass so Alex could join me in Florida, and the producers readily agreed. We shared a flight down, and on arrival the lead producer had arranged a surprise: we stopped en route to the Cape at the studios of Nickelodeon TV—Alex’s favourite station—for a VIP tour. He got to watch shows being filmed and dip his hand in the famous green slime before climbing into a limousine and heading for the tiny spit of land where rocket ships have been launched since the dawn of the space age. We were both kids that day, climbing into simulators, gasping in awe at the size of the Saturn rockets lining the road.

The next day, with a Shuttle simulator right behind us, I was joined by two of the original Mercury Seven astronauts, the guys with the “right stuff,” Scott Carpenter and Wally Schirra, for GMA’s coverage. I was able to call on a depth of knowledge I’d been accumulating since I was Alex’s age, but something even more important happened that day. Those guys I shared the stage with had been my boyhood heroes, and Alex was there to be introduced to them. How many men get to introduce their son to their own heroes? Especially astronauts?

But my burdens were still with me. As the ratings slide continued, the attempts to make me over became more desperate. My personality, my hair, my glasses, my clothes, the way I spoke—everything about my appearance needed to be changed, apparently.

It got to the point of absurdity. One of the senior producers decided my eyes needed to “pop” behind my glasses, and suggested I get my eyelashes dyed. I did, stupidly, at one of those cheap estheticians you find on every block in Manhattan. They used jet-black dye, so I came out looking like a boyish hooker. Cathy and I had to go out for a business dinner that evening and at one point I noticed she was staring at me with a look of horror on her face. “The dye started to bleed partway through dinner, and you looked like Iggy Pop,” she told me on the way home. I walked into work the next morning, self-conscious as hell, marched up to the producer and asked her how my eyes looked. She thought it was a huge improvement.

The  most  senior executive in charge of GMA at the time invested a little more generously in my physical transformation. A company was commissioned to adjust my look in dozens of ways on paper, as though I were a paper doll: different hairstyles, different glasses, no glasses, all different colours of suits and ties. About thirty “Kevins” were then trotted out for a focus group, which critiqued them all before settling on “Optimal  Kevin,” who had longer hair with a well-defined part, no glasses, or less obtrusive ones, and a penchant for blue suits and green ties.

I was also being told that my accent and word choices were suboptimal. Early in my tenure at ABC News, I had had elocution lessons with a speech coach on Manhattan’s East Side, the go-to linguist for Canadians at the network who needed to learn how to say “White House” without the telltale northern inflection. I’d sit on the couch in the speech coach’s well-appointed apartment, and we’d practise saying “ahww” together for minutes at a time. I had to hold my index finger and thumb at opposite corners of my mouth to experience the feel and look of an American “ou,” not just its sound. Americans opened their mouths  wider than  Canadians, and the sound that came out was a little more nasal. I’d learned how to say “out” and “about” instead of “oot” and “aboot.” And I’d learned that whereas a Canadian emphasizes the first syllable of the word “adult,” an American puts the stress on the second syllable.

Still, I made some blunders that only a Canadian would make. Some everyday Canadian words—“eavestrough,” “toboggan”—aren’t common in the U.S., a fact I learned the hard way when I unwittingly used them, instead of “gutters” and “sled,” on GMA. And I had trouble getting worked up about baseball, a game that arouses less interest in Canada  than, say, hockey. My lack of baseball knowledge was considered a deep and troubling flaw during the World Series. A male co-host’s lack of passion about sports verges on unforgivable. Unmasculine.

My low point in terms of cross-cultural blunders came during an interview with Arnold Palmer, who asked what kind of golfer I was. I replied, “You wouldn’t even want me to carry your clubs—I’m a putz.”  The  New York-born executive producer’s voice coldly informed me, via my earpiece, that “putz” is the Yiddish word for penis, and ordered me to apologize to the audience immediately. I decided to handle it a little differently. Issuing a lengthy, serious apology would derail the whole interview and possibly make my gaffe seem even more offensive. So I waited until the end of the segment to apologize, and said, “I’m a putz for saying ‘putz.’ ”

A TV Guide story about the show’s troubles was headlined, “The Toughest Year of His Life.” The  article correctly noted that ratings were in free-fall, the show lacked focus and the hosts lacked chemistry, and mentioned that Aaron Brown was the latest name being floated as my replacement. There was no mention of a replacement for Lisa, though she didn’t escape criticism altogether.

“I just want the uncertainty to end. It’s not healthy for anyone on the program,” I’d told the journalist, sounding very much like a host who’s  already got one foot out the door. And  I did. I wanted to stop pretending to be a QB, or a Matt Lauer, or Optimal Kevin. I wanted a job where I could be myself and people would value what I had to offer. It’s one thing to feel desperately unhappy when you’re searching for the cure for cancer or fighting for freedom. It’s quite another when you’re hosting cooking segments. As I told TV Guide, “I don’t mean to belittle what I do, but it’s just TV. It’s not my real life. What matters to me are the people I love.”

Forrest Sawyer, Connie Chung and several other high-profile anchors had already pulled me aside, saying, “What you need to focus on now is trying to control your landing.” All of them had experienced public failure to some degree, and their advice was to accept the inevitability of it rather than trying to fight it, and to focus on what would come next. Barbara Walters urged me to do the best work of my career and make sure it was the most serious work so far. She said it was how she’d bounced back from career disappointments and resurrected herself as a journalist. Ted Koppel, the host of Nightline, kindly walked across the room at an event and threw me a lifeline, saying, “You can work for me when the time comes.” Peter Jennings was also supportive, and told me he’d make a place for me. I felt lucky that some key people still had faith in me.

I had been requesting a meeting with David Westin for several weeks, with no response. Then, one December morning in the car on the way to work, I read a column in the New York Post suggesting I was a lightweight as a journalist. To me, the story read like a plant, something that had been handed to the paper by the network, and I was alarmed. There had been no shortage of speculation and bad reviews, but until that point, no one had ever challenged my intellect or journalistic credentials. If those were trashed, I’d never work again. So after the show wrapped for the day, I marched up to Westin’s office and asked to see him immediately. When I was told he was unavailable, I announced that I would sit outside his door, for the rest of the day if necessary, until he was free. And I did. By the time he agreed to see me, I was pretty worked up. I don’t remember exactly what either of us said, but at the end of the meeting, we were both very clear that there was no future for me at GMA and I didn’t want there to be one, either.

Excerpted from All Out by Kevin Newman and Alex Newman. Copyright © 2015 Kevin Newman and Alex Newman. Excerpted by permission of Random House Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.