Robin Roberts Returns to ‘Good Morning America’

By: The New York Times Email
By: The New York Times Email
Robin Roberts returned to ABC

Robin Roberts, left, was back on “Good Morning America” Wednesday after taking a medical leave of absence so she could undergo a bone marrow transplant.

(The New York Times) - Nearly six months after signing off ABC’s “Good Morning America” to fight a life-threatening illness, Robin Roberts made her return on Wednesday to the top-rated morning show, describing herself as thankful and a bit relieved to be back.

The moment, promoted two weeks ahead of time by ABC, was celebrated by fans of the show, thousands of whom sent well-wishes on social networking Web sites. Many of them watch the show specifically for Ms. Roberts, who is, according to industry research, the most-liked host on any American morning news show by a wide margin.

“After 173 very long days, it’s beautiful to get back to business as usual with our full team and two more wonderful regulars,” said Ben Sherwood, the president of ABC News, in an interview before Wednesday’s broadcast. The two regulars he mentioned were Elizabeth Vargas and Amy Robach, who took turns filling in while Ms. Roberts was away. They will continue to show up regularly on “G.M.A.,” he said.

But the “G.M.A.” co-host chair next to George Stephanopoulos is Ms. Roberts’s chair once again, as Mr. Sherwood pledged it would be when she signed off.

Her return on Wednesday defied the expectations of some television industry observers who predicted she’d be unwilling or unable to anchor ever again. It also gave ABC fresh optimism that “G.M.A.,” with Ms. Roberts back in her chair, can continue to beat NBC’s “Today” show, which last year was dislodged from the top spot in the morning ratings after 16 straight years.

Most of all, her return closed a chapter in a story that started almost exactly one year ago, when Ms. Roberts felt exhausted while covering the 2012 Academy Awards in Los Angeles for ABC. Subsequent tests by her doctors found that she had M.D.S., short for myelodysplastic syndromes, a rare and debilitating blood disorder, likely resulting from her treatment for breast cancer five years earlier.

Ms. Roberts was officially given the diagnosis on the same week in April that “G.M.A.” beat “Today” for the first time. She told “G.M.A.” viewers about the diagnosis two months later, in mid-June, and took a medical leave of absence at the end of August so she could undergo a bone-marrow transplant.

Ms. Roberts told viewers she’d be back on “G.M.A.” as soon as she could. But no one knew for sure how long she would be away, if she survived at all. Nor could anyone at ABC think of any precedents for a lengthy leave of absence like hers.

“It was completely uncharted territory,” Mr. Sherwood said. The closest things to it were weeks-long maternity leaves, and the one thing ABC was determined not to repeat: a departure like that of Peter Jennings, the longtime “World News Tonight” anchor who abruptly came onto his newscast one day in April 2005, announced he had lung cancer, said “I will continue to do the broadcast,” but never came back.

Mr. Jennings died four months after making the announcement, and the circumstances were traumatic for viewers as well as for ABC staff members. For that reason – as well as for the more obvious ones involving ratings and reputation – ABC decided to make Ms. Roberts a part of “G.M.A.” even while she was in the hospital recuperating from the transplant. Mr. Stephanopoulos and the other co-hosts mentioned her by name at least once every half-hour, and they shared her Twitter messages and photos on TV regularly.

ABC executives and producers emphasized that they were taking their cues from Ms. Roberts every step of the way, and she has said the same thing in interviews. She’s returning now, they said, only because her doctors say she is ready.

On Tuesday night, Ms. Roberts had a quiet dinner at home with her sisters, one of whom was her bone marrow donor. “We laughed and told old family stories,” she said in an early morning text message. “This is a wonderful new chapter for all of us.”

Nonetheless, morning TV is big business, and there have been grumblings that ABC has exploited her condition for ratings gains. Last July, two weeks after NBC removed Ann Curry from “Today,” spurring a big lift in the ratings for “G.M.A.,” the “Today” show executive producer Jim Bell wrote in an e-mail to senior producers that the competition was “using Robin’s illness and the accompanying public interest in her health as a new weapon in its arsenal.”

More recently, some media critics have censured “G.M.A.” for over-covering Ms. Roberts’s impending return; a steady stream of commercials featured a bevy of celebrities welcoming her back. But for the most part, viewers have been rooting for Ms. Roberts and for her television family, which remained No. 1 in the morning ratings race while she was away.

Among total viewers, “G.M.A.” celebrated six straight months of wins earlier this month and started to describe it as a streak, mimicking the way “Today” used to talk. Among the 25- to 54-year-old viewers that help the shows make money, “G.M.A.” stayed slightly ahead of “Today” while Ms. Roberts was absent. Within ABC, there is a quiet hope that her return will propel the show to a firmer victory among 25- to 54-year-olds.

Mr. Sherwood ducked questions about the ratings, but said, “This experience has reminded us to take nothing for granted – and, like Robin herself, in many ways we feel like we’re just getting started.”

Even the most cynical “G.M.A.” producers – interviewed on condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized by the network to speak – pointed out that Ms. Roberts’s story could have ended very differently. “It doesn’t matter about ratings” on Wednesday, one such producer said in between emotional expletives. “She is alive!”

She came closer to death last year than ABC readily acknowledged at the time. For three months after the transplant, since her newly-booted immune system was like a newborn’s, she stayed in isolation, first in a New York hospital and then in her home.

Interviewed by People magazine, which put her on the cover last week, Ms. Roberts said she was warned that “at one point I would feel like dying.” Shortly after the transplant, that came true, she said: “I was in a pain I had never experienced before, physically and mentally. I was in a coma-like state. I truly felt like I was slipping away. Then I kept hearing, ‘Robin! Robin!’” The voice belonged to a nurse, who Ms. Roberts said was “pleading for me to stay here. And thankfully I did. I came back.”

In December, Ms. Roberts stepped out in public view, and a few weeks ago she started coming to the “G.M.A.” studio on so-called dry runs for her return to the co-host chair. She’ll re-emerge gradually, for a few days a week at first, depending on how she and her doctor feel about how it’s going, which partly explains why Ms. Vargas and Ms. Robach will remain regulars on the show.

On Tuesday afternoon, the “G.M.A.” staff were briefed by Tom Cibrowski, the show’s executive producer, about what one staff member called the “rules of Robin’s return,” which include health tips to ward off the transmission of the common cold and other illnesses. Among them: “elbow bumps instead of hugs and kisses,” the staffer said, and ample use of the hand sanitizer dispensers around the studio.

There was long and sustained applause for Mr. Stephanopoulos during the meeting. “George is really the unsung hero,” said another staff member. “He kept the team together.”

Ms. Roberts’s return was even cause for a temporary cessation of hostilities between “G.M.A.” and “Today.” Don Nash, who succeeded Mr. Bell as executive producer of “Today” two months ago, said in an e- mail on Tuesday night, “Robin is an outstanding broadcaster, a great colleague and friend to so many. All of us at ‘Today’ wish her continued good health and years of hitting the 3 a.m. snooze button!”

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