There's one absolutely surefire way to know when a show is in serious ratings trouble - the people involved with it insist they aren't even THINKING about the ratings.
Right. Sort of like a starving man doesn't think about food.The folks at ABC's "Good Morning America" are getting pretty darned hungry these days. The show's ratings have been bad and they're getting even worse.
"Our job right now, as we see it, is to make the show the best broadcast that it can be," said new executive producer Shelley Lewis. "We cannot predict when the ratings will turn around. Nobody really can.
"If we were judged only by the content of the program and not by the numbers, I'm pretty confident that we would be judged a moderate success already, eight weeks into the process."
More often than not, however, NBC's "Today Show" draws more than twice the ratings of "GMA." And "GMA" itself is barely holding off perennial third-place finisher "This Morning" over on CBS.
" `Good Morning America' is our most immediate, pressing need," said ABC News president David Westin. "We need to get the program to a point where we all believe in it and it's making progress.
"I think the most important thing for `Good Morning America' right now is to give stability, to give support, to give them the self-confidence they need and the simple firm direction of what they need to accomplish. And the direction that I've given is, `Don't worry about the ratings.' The audience will come if we do the right kind of program."
Whether they're doing the right kind of program is the big question, of course. At this point, there's little or no indication of that from the ratings. But it's early in the game - the current team of anchors Lisa McRee and Kevin Newman and executive producer Lewis have only been working together for a couple of months. And they say they were pretty much expecting to have to dig themselves out of a hole.
(To be fair, they didn't start that excavation. "GMA" fell behind "Today" three years ago, and its ratings were in serious decline even before former anchors Joan Lunden and Charles Gibson left the program.)
"Of course we want better ratings," Lewis said. "But we are not surprised at where we are in terms of our ratings when we look at the changes we've made. . . . No morning show in history has ever changed both anchors in eight months time.
In addition, the show has changed executive producers, changed sets, changed its music, changed its correspondents and contributors. The latest changes involve bringing in saxophonist David Sanborn as the "music contributor" and Bob Green as the "fitness contributor."
Weathercaster Spencer Christian, after nearly 12 years on "GMA," is leaving in January to take a job at the ABC-owned station in San Francisco.
(Everyone involved insists it's an amicable departure - and that it's Christian's desire to leave. "We love him. We'll miss him. We're very happy that he agreed to stay until January, but it was a fabulous opportunity for him," Lewis said.)
Still, change is not necessarily good when it comes to morning news programs. At least not in the short run.
"We think all the change has been for the good, but we knew that we would see a hit in the ratings. We expected it," Lewis said. "But the audience had already demonstrated, over the last three years, that they were really ready for change."
And, indeed, when they desert you in droves that's a fairly good indication change of some sort is required.
"I wasn't surprised because morning television, unlike other kinds of news programs, is about a relationship," Newman said. "And when you have a new neighbor that moves in next door, you don't know them right away and you may be a little hesitant to get to know them.
"I mean, (viewers) didn't know me that well. They didn't know Lisa that well when she came to the program. They're getting to know us over time."
The early reviews haven't been kind, however. Both McRee and Newman have gotten, at best, a lukewarm reception from both critics and viewers. And if there's any real chemistry between them, it has yet to be demonstrated.
And McRee admits that, while she was expecting less-than-spectacular numbers, they are still a bit hard to take.
"I think in the bottom of your heart you hope it won't happen, of course," she said. "But they also showed us the history and said, `Look, the `Today' show overtook `Good Morning America' three years ago. We're not expecting you to come in and turn things around overnight. . . .
"And there's a huge learning curve for all of us that we're embarking on. I think that's what we just have to focus on. It will make you crazy if you look at (the ratings), and it takes the numbers a while to catch up with what's going on with the audience."
She's assuming, of course, that the audience LIKES what's going on with the show - an assumption that has yet to be borne out.
The good news for the current "Good Morning America" regime is that, at this point, they have the unequivocal support of their boss.
"I've tried to make that as public as I can," Westin said. "I've tried to be as unambiguous about that as possible. Absolutely. I'm confident in Lisa and Kevin and Shelley."
And not one of those three appears to be going anywhere anytime soon, despite some reports to the contrary.
"The three of us were not brought in to be caretakers," Lewis said. "We believe that we were brought in to take a program that has been a jewel for ABC (and) shine it up again. To make it sparkle again, and then to put it into a more contemporary and newer setting."
VIVE LA DIFFERENCE: There's a lot of talk at ABC about how they want "Good Morning America" to offer a distinctively different show than what's happening over at NBC's "Today."
So, of course, "GMA" will be mimicking "Today" by building a new studio in New York's Times Square, complete with lots of windows and crowds outside those windows.
Gee, wonder where they got that idea?
But, "GMA" executive producer Lewis assures us, it won't be an exact replica of the "Today" facility.
"It's two floors," she said of the new studio, which is at least a year away from completion. "The ground floor is a place where we can invite our audience, or viewers, passers-by to come inside. To watch the broadcast, to actually have a cup of coffee, to stand in a protected environment.
"And we would like to use that opportunity to talk to those people about the issues that concern them. If we're doing a hard-news interview or if we're doing a medical report and they have questions we will expect to be able to incorporate our audience's questions or comments frequently into the broadcast."
Shades of Phil Donahue or Oprah Winfrey.