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On the set of “Good Morning America” Wednesday, Robin Roberts took her seat at the anchor desk, adorned with a huge red bow, for the first time in 173 days with nervous anticipation.
“It felt good, to have butterflies after all this time. After doing the first block — like butter,” Roberts joked with TVNewser after the show. “It felt so right. I felt at ease.”
Today’s show marked the continuation of a return to a full workload for Roberts, who will be on the air a few days a week at first as she gets stronger. She is finished with her treatments, a result of a bone marrow transplant five months ago, though still under the watchful eye of doctors and nurses. The primary health concern now is her weakened immune system, which dictates behavior on the set: stashes of hand sanitizer tucked throughout the studio, elbow bumps instead of hugs for her co-workers.
It is the beginning of a new chapter for Roberts, who pushed to be strong enough to return before the Oscars. It was at that event last year — on February 26, 2012 — that she began to feel sick, a feeling she described as “bone-weary fatigue.”
“From talking to my doctors, they said it would be a tremendous boost to know in a year’s time that I was back there and on the road to recovery,” Roberts says. “Well on the road to recovery.”
Roberts’ mix of excitement and nerves for Wednesday’s show was echoed by her co-hosts. Lara Spencer said she felt like it was Christmas morning. Josh Elliott said he and Roberts spent an hour on the phone last night to “marinate in our mutual insomnia.”
“I didn’t know what it was going to feel like. It came much quicker than all of us expected,” George Stephanopoulos said. “She knocked on my door a little after quarter to five this morning and just said, ‘you got my back today, right?’ and I said, ‘I got your back every day.’ And I could tell she was just set and ready to go.”
It was a happy change for the “GMA” team, who have been in a fluid state since Roberts — the show’s “team captain”– went on medical leave in September.
For the five months that she was off the air, ABC News president Ben Sherwood noted there was “no master plan,” but said the network’s approach to Roberts’ illness was influenced by the memory of Peter Jennings’ battle with lung cancer.
“Peter went on the air one night and with a very hoarse voice announced that he was facing lung cancer and he would be back. And Peter never anchored another show,” said Sherwood, who was an ABC producer at the time. “We brought a lot of those lessons from that time — which was a really dark, tough time at ABC News — we brought a lot of those lessons to thinking about how we wanted to handle and approach [this].”
Sherwood was adamant that the show’s approach to covering the illness was dictated not by the competitive ratings battle with NBC’s “Today,” but by Roberts’ feeling that “her mess is her message.”
“This is not some television ploy. This is a real person having a real life experience, and we have tried to resonate as authentically with her, and with the show and the team and the audience, as
we possibly could,” he said. “And if the result is that the audience, already loving her, wants to find out more and connect with her more, then there you go.”
Roberts is undoubtedly loved. Well-wishes flowed onto the “GMA” set this morning from near and far: from Times Square, where fans lined up outside the studio as early as 4 a.m., from Washington, where Pres. and Mrs. Obama recorded a message of support, and even from down the block at “Today,” where her competitors sent over a gift basket and a donation to Be the Match, an organization that matches bone marrow donors with recipients.
“You can tell that she feels it, that she gets strength by it, that she’s inspired by it and restored by it,” Stephanopoulos said of all the support for Roberts. “You can feel that bond.”
Despite the emotional turmoil of Roberts’ battle with MDS, Sherwood called her absence “a remarkable and beautiful growth for every single person on the team and everybody at ABC News.”
“In the endless war, when they’re old and they remember what they did in television, the 174 days — and this particular day — are days they will never forget,” he said.