40 Years Later, David Hartman on the Birth of ‘Good Morning America’

By Alissa Krinsky 

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HartmanGMAThe phone rang on an October morning in 1975.

David Hartman, an actor and documentary producer, picked up the receiver to find ABC programming honcho Bob Shanks on the line with an offer. Would Hartman be interested in hosting a new program called Good Morning America?

Hartman liked what he heard. “And we went on the air 30 days later,” he tells TVNewser.

GMA debuted November 3, 1975. It was the start of the morning show wars as we know them. At the urging of its affiliates, the network had been trying to get in on the dawn patrol game since earlier that year. Its first attempt, AM America, bombed.

Good Morning America was a second chance – and a risky one at that. Hartman did not have a journalism background. He told network execs they’d all be “savaged in the press.” ABC was not deterred. “They said, ‘We’re with you. We’ll take the hits from the media. And we’ll see if we can make this work.'”

It worked.  Despite debuting without a single advertiser, within a few years GMA would overtake NBC’s storied Today show for the morning ratings crown. (Today would take it back in 1995 and hold on to No. 1 for 16 years.)

The goal was to have “a quiet, thoughtful conversation” with the viewer, “to present information to people that they could use in their lives,” Hartman explains. There was no anchor desk, but rather a living-room like set. Marvin Hamlisch wrote the show’s bouncy-yet-soothing signature theme song. “It was a personal mission for me,” Hartman says of the show’s determination not to shock its audience out of bed in the morning. “It was a mission for all of us on the staff.”

As the program grew in popularity, Hartman became a well-known presence to Americans, memorably signing off each morning with his famous catch-phrase “Make it a good day today!”

Joan Lunden, his best-known co-host, joined Hartman in 1980. They would anchor together until he left the show in 1987.

Hartman(m)Hartman, who turned 80 in May, is still recognized regularly by viewers.  He lives in North Carolina with his wife, and does public speaking, writing, and producing.  He also hosts North Carolina Symphony broadcasts on public radio.

Hartman stays in touch with a number of Good Morning America colleagues, including his successor, Charlie Gibson, and original GMA news anchor Steve Bell. “I essentially spent more time with that family than I did with my own!” Hartman recalls.  “You really do develop a relationship, and that relationship has continued with a lot of our staff, because it was such a rich, warm experience for all of us.  And we were all on the same page, and loved doing what we did – we were proud of it.”

He knows the morning show of his era was a very different kind of program than the GMA of today, one that favors noise over “quiet, thoughtful conversation,” a crowded anchor desk, and a focus on human-interest stories that some critics say veers toward the tabloid.

“It started with cable [competition], and then came the internet and social media,” Hartman says of morning television’s evolution. “If you did today the program that we tried to do…I’m not sure [it] could be competitive. It’s just the times – they have changed.” Hartman, Gibson, and others are being asked by producers to come back this November for a special anniversary celebration.

Hartman is looking forward to that, feeling “blessed” for the fledgling morning program that turned into the ride of a lifetime. “It was just a flat-out privilege to have the opportunity and the responsibility to try to bring accurate and thoughtful information to people that they could use in a constructive way in their lives.”

“What a privilege. I’m just grateful. Grateful, grateful, grateful. We enjoyed it every day. We really did.”

Watch David Hartman interview Paul and Linda McCartney on “Good Morning America” on November 27, 1980.