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First Mover: Tom Cibrowski

The 'GMA' producer on playing the chess game of morning news

Photo: Elizabeth Lippman

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So what’s it like to finally beat the Today show in total viewers for the first time in 16 years?
These are really exciting times for everybody here. The whole team has worked so hard. It’s emotional, it’s exciting, and it’s totally fulfilling for so many people. We won yesterday, but they won the day before. We’re going to be trading days here for a long time, so the goal here is to maintain the lead.

You’re an old ABC hand. Is it just a natural progression up the ladder, or is there a big difference when you reach the top?
You know that something has changed. You’re responsible for more people and you’re ultimately responsible for every decision the staff makes. But I know what the strengths and weaknesses of the staff are, and there’s no learning curve. It’s more about maximizing the strengths of the people you know well.

Morning TV is a famously difficult grind. What keeps you doing it?
It’s my second family. There’s no better place to work than in morning television. It’s the daily charge of being shot out of a cannon before the sun rises. To do that every single morning is a really exciting thing.

When you say, “before the sun rises … ”
I wake up at 4, 4:02 a.m. —every minute counts at that point. I get out the door at about 4:30, and I’m at work by 4:40. Much better to have a five-minute commute at 4 o’clock in the morning than anytime else.

Good God.
It’s a 24-hour cycle. After we end the show at 9, a new plan starts to get put together for the next day. It’s three shifts of people all through the day and night. But by the next day when I walk in at 4:40, you hope the show is three-fourths of the way baked, and then you have to add some sprinkles. We’re always on the watch for breaking news. The news cycle is so fast right now. We will shift the show right up to airtime. Or right up through when we’re on the air, depending on when it works. It’s a constant chess game.

When was the last time you had to rework something while the show was running?
Actually, it was just the other day. We had a couple of breaking stories right before air—there were tornadoes that had done some damage right before airtime. Then there were the school shootings, and we scrambled a reporter in London and had him go on the air with less than half an hour of notice.

You must just run on coffee.
Believe it or not, I don’t drink coffee. I drink iced tea. I don’t drink caffeine before 9 o’clock in the morning. I have a routine of a small breakfast and then I have a snack of peanut butter in the morning, which pretty much everyone knows. The only way to survive these hours is to train to do a normal schedule. If you go off the schedule, you really feel it. I do have to sneak through my apartment on tiptoe in the morning, though.

What’s going to change now that you’re in charge?
We don’t want to make too many changes. We want to make sure we have time to allow [the team] to engage with the viewers. GMA has a youth presence on Yahoo; they’re often reading and responding to comments and tweets on YouTube, Yahoo and Twitter. We’re able even to editorially make split-second decisions because we’ve got people who can extend a segment that’s working well longer than planned.

So if Brad Pitt really has the audience in the palm of his hand, you can keep him around longer than scheduled?
Absolutely. [pauses] Brad Pitt might be a little hard.