January 6 - October 31, 1975
As ABC-TV's "Good Morning America" celebrated its 40th anniversary in November 2015, no mention was made of its predecessor, the program it replaced. It's the show ABC doesn't want you to remember.
It was ABC's first entry into the early morning sweepstakes - an $8-million effort that had been in the planning stages for two years. But instead of giving NBC's "Today" program a serious challenge, it went down in flames after only ten months on the air; some put it among the biggest bombs in television history.
For more than 25 years, ABC had been struggling to catch up with NBC and CBS - and, propelled by its excellent sports product, had reached parity in most areas - daytime, weekend, news, and late-night - and near-equality in prime time. But the alphabet network operated with a big handicap: while NBC and CBS came on the air weekdays at 7 a.m.,* ABC didn't start up until 11:30 a.m., hurting its efforts to recruit new affiliates (ABC had only 185 stations, while CBS and NBC each had about 210). If ABC was to catch up, they'd have to open for business when the others did.
ABC's late start also meant it was shut out of potential advertising revenue. And that was another key consideration: the chance for profits. And ABC had only to look at "Today" to see how profitable morning television could be.
In 1974, one minute on "Today" cost advertisers $12,000. Nobody paid that much, however, because of NBC's rate card discount structure ("Today" was sold in tandem with the "Tonight Show"). Nevertheless, it was estimated that NBC made a profit of around $10-million a year, and plans were made to raise the price of a "Today" minute in March 1975 to $12,700.
ABC reasoned it could offer eight minutes of commercial time to advertisers if it added two hours of morning programming to its schedule. Eight minutes a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year . . . one only needed to do the math.
Yes, early-morning television could be profitable. But it could also be frustrating. One only need ask CBS.
Since the mid-50s, CBS' attempts to match "Today" had met with nothing but failure. The list of hosts reads like a television Who's Who: Walter Cronkite, Jack Paar, Dick Van Dyke, John Henry Faulk, and Jimmy Dean each hosted "The Morning Show" in succession from 1954 to 1957; Mike Wallace, Joseph Benti and John Hart each anchored the "CBS Morning News" between 1965 and 1973. Then in August 1973, CBS paired gruff correspondent Hughes Rudd with giddy Washington Post columnist Sally Quinn (who had no previous television experience) with promises that Quinn would dethrone NBC's nine-year "Today" veteran, Barbara Walters; the Rudd/Quinn pairing actually drove viewers away, a disaster that lasted about six months, when Quinn returned to the Post. Rudd continued as solo anchor, getting high style marks for a no-nonsense news broadcast, but few viewers. (Inside CBS News, the show's unofficial motto was: "We do this show for an audience of one." The reason: CBS Chairman William S. Paley was an insomniac - and a faithful viewer. As long as he was happy, the show was considered safe.) As a result, CBS consistently lost money on its "Morning News," which commanded only $1700 for a 60-second commercial.
Meanwhile, ABC-owned stations in Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles were producing local morning shows that often outrated "Today," and were particularly popular with the 18-to-49 set advertisers covet. ABC figured that if the best elements of those programs could be copied on a national basis, it would provide a strong challenge that would bring viewers to ABC, which would mean more advertisers (and their dollars), and perhaps convince a CBS or NBC station to switch their affiliation.
So ABC went to work, testing some 76 program ideas before settling on what would become "AM America." The research became an integral part of the planning for the new show, with each nuance and element thoroughly tested and approved.
The research showed a preference for lifestyle news, such as beauty tips and fashion; hence, a feature called "Coping." Interest in celebrities begat a segement called "People." The research showed a disdain for desks, which were branded "authority barriers;" the decision was made to perch the hosts on stools behind molded plastic podiums. The research also pointed out that orange and yellow were thought to be good "morning colors," and so orange and yellow would be featured colors on the "AM" set - right down to the orange notebook paper on the hosts' podiums.
One morning - April 19, 1974, ABC decided to test the water, sending its West Coast stations a one-time-only regional version of KABC-TV's popular Los Angeles morning show, "AM." It included interviews with the new head of the World Football League, segments on petroglyphs and a "hostility kit," as well as live remotes from San Francisco, the San Diego Zoo, and Expo '74, the World's Fair in Spokane, WA.
But while ABC was deep in the research and planning process, fate was stepping in.
When "AM" was conceived in early 1973, "Today" had been on the air for more than 20 years and seemed set in its ways, content to provide a rather highbrow mix of news, erudition, and entertainment. But in April 1974, host Frank McGee died suddenly, and NBC decided to revamp the entire program. After a much-publicized talent hunt (with weeks of on-air auditions), 34-year-old Jim Hartz was chosen to co-host the show with Barbara Walters (who was promoted to co-host only after she pointed out to NBC that her contract stipulated she would become co-host if McGee left - literally, as Walters later put it, "over Frank McGee's dead body"). That November, "Today" got a facelift, with shorter segments, a new sunrise logo, and a new set, designed by Fred Harpman and patterned after WNBC-TV's attractive "NewsCenter 4" set.
Meanwhile, the planning continued at ABC.
To host the show in New York, ABC selected 44-year-old Bill Beutel, co-anchor of its "Eyewitness News" on New York's WABC-TV, and 31-year-old Stephanie Edwards, who had co-hosted KABC-TV's "AM" for three and a half years. (Bob Kennedy, host of "Kennedy & Co."** on ABC's WLS-TV in Chicago, had been chosen to co-host with Beutel and Edwards, but fell ill and died less than two months before "AM's" debut.) Peter Jennings, former ABC anchorman and Beirut bureau chief, would read the news from Washington. In addition, a number of regular contributors were hired, including former Senator (and Watergate committee Chairman) Sam Ervin, former Attorney General Elliot Richardson, former New York Mayor John Lindsay, and Jesse Jackson (they were dubbed "AMericans"). Edwards' co-host in Los Angeles, Ralph Story, signed on as "AM's" West Coast correspondent.
Much of the attention focused on Edwards, whom ABC was touting as its answer to Barbara Walters (sound familiar?). The "rivalry" between the two didn't exist (in interviews, Edwards repeatedly expressed her "admiration" for Walters), but reporters and ABC executives repeatedly emphasized Edwards' youth, fresh-faced good looks and bubbly personality as a contrast to Walters' mature, more serious, hard-hitting (some - even Edwards - would say "abrasive") style.
But despite the buildup, Edwards was a reluctant and worried participant. In a December 1974 cover story in "New York" magazine, Edwards said she had initially turned down ABC's first overtures toward her, and only changed her mind when her boyfriend auditioned for a Broadway play. She admitted her fears and shortcomings: "I'm scared! . . . from what I've been told, I don't make an initial good impression. . . . initially, people think I'm fake, plastic, over-articulated and a goody-goody - and it makes me feel bad. I've wept over it, I've tried to alter it." As to her interviewing style: "I don't get hunkering down into a subject right away . . . I've been trying to learn to ask direct, blunt questions . . . maybe New York is going to beat it into me."
Advertisers climbed aboard the "AM" wagon, enticed by an initial rate of $3,000 per minute. General Foods and Colgate-Palmolive signed on for the entire first year; by its premiere, "AM's" first three months were sold out, with sponsors including Kellogg, Gillette, Sears, Nabisco and Campbell Soups.
But when the show premiered January 6, 1975, it landed with a thud. The atmosphere was nervous: "This moment of tension is brought to you by some very nice people," Edwards said at the beginning of the show (she later described the staff as "close to urinating on the set" over her choice of a grey pants-suit for the premiere); Beutel and Edwards generally looked "manic," according to one review; and the choice of British Home Secretary Roy Jenkins as the prime interview was, to say the least, inept (as was Lindsay's questioning of him: "What's your outlook on the state of the world, Roy?").
Reviews were generally bad: "a staccato muddle of the shallowly portentious and the trivial," said Time; "Neither (Beutel or Edwards) seemed to know what to do with several provocative guests . . . Peter Jennings was the show's saving grace," wrote John Voorhis in the Seattle Times. But there were some encouraging words: Variety said, "As the week wound down, so did the show. . . Edwards had stopped grinning and rolling her eyes, and Beutel no longer looked like a passenger on a choppy plane flight. What is remarkable is not that it started off so badly, but that it improved so quickly." TV Guide's Cleveland Amory waited a few weeks for the show to shake down before passing judgement:" . . . All in all, we're bullish on AM America."
In the weeks leading to its premiere, ABC had set its initial audience estimate at two million homes - a modest number perhaps, compared with the five million viewers "Today" regularly got (not counting an unmeasurable audience of several hundred thousand traveling businessmen in hotel rooms). But when the Nielsen ratings came out, it was clear that ABC was nowhere even close. The ratings started off bad - and stayed there. In its first three months, "AM America" averaged only a 1.6 rating and a 10 share, while CBS had a 1.7/16 for its "Morning News" with Hughes Rudd, and NBC's "Today" led with a 5.5/37.
The tinkering began almost immediately: the wall full of clocks on a portion of the "AM" set soon disappeared; by the end of March, the host's podiums were gone, replaced by an "authority barrier" (a.k.a. "desk"); by the end of May, Stephanie Edwards was gone (to get married, ABC said; Edwards said later she left, essentially, out of frustration). Edwards was never replaced, as Beutel was thereafter paired with a different "co-host" each week, with psychologist Dr. Sonya Friedman sharing the desk with Beutel most often.
During the summer of 1975, with the kids out of school, vacations, and viewership levels traditionally lower, the ratings fell: by August, ABC was managing only a .9 rating and an 8 share, compared to CBS' 1.4/21 and NBC's 4.0/36.
There were several good reasons for the low numbers. One reason could be laid squarely at the feet of ABC executives who, nervous about their multi-million dollar investment, got in the way. Complaints about corporate interference had been rife ever since the program went on the air, with reports that Senior Producer Jules Power - a veteran producer who listed "Mr. Wizard" and ABC's children's program "Discovery" among his credits - was constantly being second-guessed from across town. Programming executive Bob Shanks, who was moved into the morning v.p. spot in July, was singled out for bitter criticism by staffers, who told Variety in late summer that they had seen Shanks only once since he took over, that the staff had been completely ignored, and that show decisions had come from corporate headquarters, with many directives on guest selection coming from Shanks.
Blame could also be pointed at some of ABC's affiliates - historically, a notoriously independent bunch. 171 stations were set to air the show when it premiered in January, but some weren't terribly anxious to carry it in the first place, since they already had profitable local news or children's shows in the 7 to 9 a.m. slot. Some compromised by airing only 60 or 90-minutes of the two hour show. But when the ratings came in and it became clear that "AM" was in trouble, some of those stations were all too eager to jump ship.
But perhaps the best reason for the low ratings was simple: ABC didn't deliver what it promised. Advertised as a "fresh new morning show" with a faster pace and lighter segments than "Today," "AM America" nevertheless came across as a carbon copy, due to the fact that ABC ended up ignoring the research and recommendations it had spent two years putting together.
By September, the axes were being sharpened, with word coming that format changes were in the works. One rumor was "AM" would become an entertainment show with a live audience (something CBS would try a couple of times in years to come), taped in the theatre used for "The Dick Cavett Show" in the early 70s. ABC's new programming whiz, Fred Silverman, announced the change would take place October 27 (it would be pushed back a week).
With its fate sealed, the ratings surprisingly perked up the first week of October: "AM" pulled a 1.4/11 to CBS' 2.3/27 and NBC's 4.2/32. But the restructuring of the program was complete, and "AM" limped to its exit - a strange one in several ways: ABC sent "AM" to Russia for its final week. The climate and scenes were ironic: Bill Beutel bundled up in a trenchcoat during Moscow's chilly fall weather. In another irony, "AM America's" final program was broadcast on Halloween - what better day to kill a show?
The final irony was that those five shows from Russia sparked more controversy than anything "AM" had ever done in the 210 shows that had come before.
The shows featured visits to economic and space exhibitions, sports stadiums, shopping malls, and Red Square; interviews with the mayor of Moscow, a Soviet film actress, and a graduate of a "Young Pioneer Academy."
But was it, as Beutel called it, "the most ambitious" effort to date by a foreign television company to report on the U.S.S.R. . . . or was it really Soviet propaganda produced by an American network?
Three weeks after "AM's" farewell, an article in The New York Times charged 1) that the shows were nothing more than a "docile accommodation to the Soviet propoganda establishment," ten hours of "Intourist boilerplate" produced under an agreement reached a year earlier between ABC and the Soviets; 2) that the Russians were allowed to preview the programs at ABC's New York headquarters before they were aired, and 3) that the shows may have been done only to give ABC an advantage in getting the American TV rights to the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. (They eventually went to NBC, which didn't air them because of the U.S. boycott of the games that year.)
Beutel and Power fired back in letters to the Times. Power: "As all visiting journalists quickly learn, there are fairly narrow parameters as to what one can and cannot do within that country . . . we tried only to offer the best visitor's-eye view we could of Russian life." Beutel: "We could not, and did not, do a job of investigative journalism. We didn't set out to do that. . . If someone can find a way to do a real documentary . . . on political prisoners and rebels in the Soviet Union, it should be done. We make no pious claims for what we did. We simply believe we did our job well."
With that, the controversy faded and was soon forgotten - just like "AM America" itself. One year later, "Good Morning America" - sticking strictly to the original "AM" battle plan - had doubled its audience and brought about major cast and format changes at "Today." By 1980, "GMA" had overtaken "Today" to become number one at 7 a.m.
And what happened to the "AM" crew?
Some in the industry blamed Edwards for the failure of "AM America" (an unfair charge in this author's opinion, who thinks she did the best she could with what she was given). She may have put it best when she told an author a year later, "I do resent what happened, not only for my sake but for the sake of the public who tuned in, thinking they might see something innovative after 15 years - and I resent that one of the best opportunies to broaden television in the last 15 or 20 years was badly botched."
* CBS actually started at 6:30 a.m., with the unsponsored "Sunrise Semester" college lecture series preceding the 7 a.m. broadcast of the "CBS Morning News," followed by "Captain Kangaroo" at 8.
** "Kennedy & Co." was renamed "AM Chicago," and was eventually hosted by some lady named Oprah.
Some information on this page came from "The Newscasters: The News Business as Show Business" by Ron Powers (1978, St. Martin's Press); as well as various issues of Broadcasting, Business Week, New York, The New York Times, Newsweek, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Times, Time, TV Guide, and Variety.
Text copyright © 2017 Kenneth I. Johannessen.
This webpage was created and produced in the United States of America.