Question: I was wondering who was the first female host of Good Morning America. I say Joan Lunden. Actually, I bet my sister a gift certificate that it was. Who's right? While you're at it, when did it first come on? Thank you, sir.
Answer: You're quite welcome, ma'am, but you'll still be buying sis that certificate.
There were two female cohosts paired off with original host David Hartman before Lunden. When Good Morning America launched in November 1975, actress Nancy Dussault shared the set with him. After a year, she departed and Sandy Hill was brought in. But Hill, who had worked as a reporter, wasn't happy being tied to the set and, according to rumors, wasn't exactly best friends with Hartman, who was credited with allowing ABC to mount its first serious challenge to the morning dominance of NBC's Today.
"I was a video deejay," Hill told TV Guide in 1981. "I'd be doing little read-ins; 'And here is Rona Barrett!' 'And here is Erma Bombeck!' I found that very disconcerting." Hill gradually expanded her work on the show, but when Hartman made it clear that her expansion would only go so far, she renegotiated her contract and Lunden got the set spot.
Rivals were only too happy to criticize ABC and Hartman for such moves. "I don't see their women doing anything heavy at all," Steve Friedman, who was executive producer of Today at the time, said, calling GMA's treatment of its female talent "chauvinistic." But it's worth pointing out that whether or not Hartman was guilty of throwing his weight around, or whether ABC's execs were guilty of letting him, he was a guy to keep happy.
When ABC launched GMA, NBC's Today was the early-morning show and had laid waste to any efforts from the competition. CBS had already gotten its nose bloodied and, most notably, ABC had been knocked down earlier in '75 when its AM America failed. But the network had to try again since the FCC this being back in the days when that body at least pretended to act like the public airwaves should actually serve the public good was pressuring ABC affiliates to provide some morning-information programming. Those affiliates, in turn, told ABC that if the network wouldn't give them something to air, they'd go the syndication route or create their own shows, thus limiting the market for any future ABC undertaking. In order to look like a serious full-service operation, the network needed to give it another shot.
So ABC legend Fred Silverman and his people did the smart thing by dumbing down the mornings, shifting the atmosphere from the typical newsroom setting to a living-room-like set. They tossed together a wide variety of talent to present info ranging from political fare to female lifestyle tips and humor (Jack Anderson handling the former, Helen Gurley Brown and Bombeck handling the latter). But most important, it brought in Hartman, a former actor (The Bold Ones, Lucas Tanner) who was engaging yet sharp enough to handle interviews and news topics when needed (no slouch in the intellect department, Hartman had graduated Duke University with an honors degree in economics).
Hartman and GMA went on the air and were promptly savaged. ABC newsmen grumbled about an actor being given a job that should have been theirs, and the New York Times blasted everything from the set ("an impractical designer's idea of gracious country living") to the show's mix of features and stories ("from hard news to silly gossip, from hysterical debate to advice on saving marriages"). As we know now, of course, that type of thing was what the audience really wanted, and by early 1980, GMA achieved the unthinkable: It actually bested Today in the ratings and held the top spot for nine months that year.
The once-invulnerable Today responded, replacing Barbara Walters with the more youthful Jane Pauley; the topics on all the morning shows gradually softened and morning TV raced to the fat-profits, mush-brained bottom it squishes around in today. Which is why Tom Cruise yelling at Matt Lauer about the evils of psychiatry is what currently passes for debate on contemporary morning TV. Not that I downloaded the video, watched it several times or e-mailed it to friends and colleagues or anything.