Heard the one about the morning news show that took a nosedive in the ratings? Trouble is, no one's laughing -- least of all the folks at the once top-ranked show.

Good Morning America weatherman Spencer Christian unwittingly summed it up during an early-July telecast. A stuttering fit was preventing him from making a smooth segment transition. After repeated attempts to spit out the scripted words, Christian finally abandoned the effort with a frustrated “I give up.”

You could almost hear the collective sighs of agreement at ABC and parent company Disney. With ratings in free fall (the show slipped 14 percent in the last year, averaging 3.8 million viewers), and new hosts Kevin Newman and Lisa McRee enduring regular whippings from TV critics, there are very few good mornings at GMA. The show has now slid so far, even CBS’ perennial basement dweller This Morning is boasting of closing the gap. And as if to add insult to injury, Christian really did give up, announcing a move to a San Francisco station. That leaves movie critic Joel Siegel as GMA‘s most familiar face (a man, ironically enough, who is frequently mistaken for his chief rival, the Today show’s Gene Shalit).

Of course, any confusion with NBC’s seemingly unstoppable juggernaut might not be bad. Today averages 6.1 million viewers (spectacular morning numbers), and hosts Katie Couric and Matt Lauer are trumpeted as the best morning news team ever. Heck, even weatherman Al Roker’s a national treasure.

Was there ever a time when Today wasn’t No. 1? Indeed—and therein lies GMA‘s great hope. Scroll back to 1994 for a very different picture. GMA was enjoying a four-year winning streak; it had also been No. 1 during much of the ’80s. NBC’s struggle at the time was not unlike GMA‘s today: oil-and-water cohosts—Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley—then a shaky transition from Pauley to Deborah Norville to Katie Couric. But by ’96, Couric was clicking, Gumbel was leaving, and Today was trouncing GMA.

Let’s not give Couric too much credit, though; ABC deserves plenty. In 1995, the net moved GMA from its entertainment to its news division, and some ex-staffers will tell you that was the critical misstep. Then-news president Roone Arledge, they say, fell asleep at the wheel, refusing to realize GMA‘s slide. By the time he made changes, it was too little too late: Many believe aging cohosts Joan Lunden, now 47, and Charles Gibson, 55, should’ve been replaced years before their ’97 and ’98 exits, and that Gibson should have gone first.

But Arledge didn’t just mismanage the talent; he fumbled content. Case in point: TWA Flight 800. Here was the perfect chance for his expertise to drive the show. NBC certainly saw the opportunity: After the July ’96 explosion, Gumbel was immediately pulled from the Atlanta Olympics and sent to the scene of the disaster. Lunden and Gibson remained studio-bound. “It was the lowest day ever,” says a former GMAer.

“In hindsight, we should’ve gone back five or seven years to make changes in the show,” says ABC News president David Westin, who took over the news division’s day-to-day operations in June. Although Westin won’t take shots at his predecessor (now ABC News chairman), he acknowledges GMA‘s unnecessarily awkward switch from entertainment to news: “I do not believe news had a clear idea of the show’s direction. There were significant problems in the integration. GMA people were resistant to the news people, and the news people were resistant to the GMA people.” As for replacing Lunden and Gibson: “You had a situation where you knew it was time [for them] to move on, but there were no real candidates.”

The result? Open and highly publicized auditions for their jobs while they were still working. Newsreader Elizabeth Vargas was a natural candidate for Lunden’s chair; many speculated she was being groomed to host when she jumped from NBC to GMA in 1996. But research is said to have revealed that women disliked her–she was simply too sexy for morning. She was also, according to several sources, a prima donna. When negative stories were planted—most likely by a GMA insider—about her “temperament and vanity” (according to a June 1997 Liz Smith column), she was packed off to PrimeTime Live.

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