“If They’re Going for a Big Name to Replace a Big Name, Who’s Bigger than George?’

By Gail Shister Comment

George_10.21.jpgWe’re curious – is it George?

Despite media reports to the contrary, George Stephanopoulos’ coronation as new co-anchor of “Good Morning America” is not a fait accompli, ABC insists.

“There is no frontrunner,” says network spokesman Jeffrey Schneider. “It’s not done, by any stretch of the imagination. We’re taking our time to do it right.”

What ignited another round of Stephanopoulos speculation was ABC’s announcement that the moderator of “This Week” would sit in for Diane Sawyer on “GMA” today through Friday.

No biggie, Schneider says. Stephanopoulos has hosted “GMA” “plenty of times.” This run will not affect ABC’s timetable for naming the successor to Sawyer, who in January replaces Charlie Gibson as “World News” anchor.

“As we’ve made crystal clear from the moment we announced about Charlie and Diane [in late August], this is a deliberate process that will take four months. We’re about a third of the way through that process.”

Still, ABC insiders say Stephanopoulos is the obvious choice to pair with Robin Roberts on the network’s most valuable cash cow.

With a new deal designating him as Sawyer’s No. 1 “World News” backup and as co-anchor of special events coverage, his stock at ABC is soaring. Come January, he will be the news division’s No. 2 star, behind only Sawyer.

“If they’re going for a big name to replace a big name, who’s bigger than George?,” says an ABC correspondent, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Stephanopoulos could not be reached for comment.

If nothing else, the cross-promotional possibilities abound. One scenario has Stephanopoulos on “GMA” Monday through Thursday, building buzz for “This Week” on Sunday. Most likely, he would only anchor the more news-driven 7amET hour, leaving the lighter stuff at 8 to others.

Steve Friedman, who did two tours as executive producer of NBC’s “Today” (1979-87; 1992-94) and another at CBS’s “Early Show” (1997-02), says every time a major star leaves “it’s an opportunity to shine or an opportunity to die.”

During Friedman’s “Today” tenure, all his successors had a regular presence on the show before they were promoted – Katie Couric as fill-in anchor and national correspondent; Matt Lauer as news anchor; Bryant Gumbel as a sports reporter.

“The audience is familiar with them because they’re in the family,” says Friedman. “It’s not a great shock to see this person come on.”

On the other hand, current co-anchor Meredith Vieira joined “Today” from outside NBC and it’s still a strong No. 1. “It works both ways,” Friedman explains. “If somebody is known, they bring their fans with them.”

No matter who gets the “GMA” plum, the big unknown is how ABC plans to re-shape the show — long a bridesmaid to “Today”.

The future of “GMA” news anchor Chris Cuomo, a hard-news guy, may also be in play. His four-year contract is up soon and he’s getting interest from other networks, ABC sources say. Cuomo could not be reached for comment.