The “Live” mess

Not anymore…

Michael Strahan’s unexpected departure from Live stuns industry insiders – and Kelly Ripa

The announcement of Michael Strahan’s departure from Disney-ABC Domestic Television’s Live With Kelly and Michael stunned the entertainment world Tuesday – perhaps none other than co-host Kelly Ripa herself, who reportedly wasn’t happy about the news.

The NFL Hall Of Famer and former New York Giants defensive back accepted an offer – which reportedly came together in five days – from ABC’s Good Morning America to join their show full-time beginning this fall – a gig he couldn’t do simultaneously with Live. Strahan joined GMA two years ago as a correspondent.

Both GMA and Live share a corporate parent in The Walt Disney Co. Strahan’s weekend appearances on Fox NFL Sunday are not affected by the deal.

The move was made as GMA was slipping behind NBC’s Today Show in the ratings – particularly in the all-important 25-54 demo, and some kind of shakeup was due. Live With Kelly and Michael ranked second among all syndicated talk shows, only behind Dr. Phil.

Ripa was a no show on Live With Kelly and Michael Wednesday, soon to be retitled Live With Kelly and Whomever. Filling in for Ripa besides Strahan was Ana Gastyner, who was a Saturday Night Live cast member. “I’ve been in the news lately… that I am leaving this show…to go over to GMA full-time, which is going to happen in September,” Strahan quipped. “It is the same channel.”

(Not exactly. Live has always been a syndicated show, and it doesn’t air on all ABC affiliates. For example, Fox-owned KDFW in Dallas airs Live, while ABC-owned WLS-TV has only aired Live since 2013, after years at WGN-TV.)

Ripa is out for the rest of the week and Monday, using a “previously scheduled vacation”, according to an ABC spokeperson, and Erin Andrews is filling in for her Thursday and Friday. Ripa has declined to comment so far.

According to several sources, Ripa wasn’t notified about the Strahan departure until a meeting Tuesday morning with ABC management. It was in the meeting she found out that Strahan was leaving for GMA, the New York Times noted.

Ripa told WABC general manager Dave Davis “she knew this would happen,” ever since Strahan signed on to go GMA, according to the Times account. Ripa was also left in the dark when Regis Philbin announced he was leaving the show five years ago. Longtime Live executive producer Michael Gelman conducted a co-host search lasting ten months before settling on Strahan in 2012, who retired from the NFL the previous season.

Starting as The Regis Phillibin Show on WABC in 1983, Live entered syndication in 1988 via Disney’s Buena Vista Television (eight years before Disney bought ABC as the fin-syn rules expired) as Live With Regis and Kathie Lee (Gifford), and became Regis and Kelly when Ripa came on board in 2001. In fact, a similar search was used to replace Gifford in 2000.

While the media is focusing on how Kelly Ripa was blindsided about the news as if she was a Survivor contestant, there is a group of people also blindsided by the move: station executives who carry the show. You can assume a few of them weren’t happy – given Live’s contract was recently extended through 2020, and were just as blindsided as Ripa was – and it’s coming at a time many station groups are cutting expensive syndicated shows out of their lineups in favor of more home-grown fare and local news, and Live and other similar syndicated fare does not come cheap.

On Tuesday at the NAB convention in Las Vegas, Scripps SVP Brian Lawlor (owners of WTMJ in Milwaukee, among others) boasted on how dropping syndicated programming for shows produced by its own station group is profitable for them.

Lawlor also pointed out how his station group – he sits on ABC’s board – put pressure on the network to fix its woeful prime-time lineup – resulting in Paul Lee being replaced by Channing Dungey as head of ABC Entertainment. Lawlor also pointed out it was NBC affiliates who ended the 2009 disaster known as The Jay Leno Show, concerned about their late news lead-ins. It helps to note, affiliates weren’t wild about the idea to begin with.

Imagine how he and other station groups reacted to the news Strahan was departing Live, and no doubt they’ll have a say in who his replacement is. After all, without affiliates, the show wouldn’t even exist. Chalk it up to the increased clout station groups have these days.

With reports of Ripa upset, you wonder if she’ll also pack her bags and head for the exits. I doubt it… you see, there is something called a contract…and it will be enforced – likely meaning Ripa and Strahan will work together until his departure in August.

And besides, the last thing anyone wants is the show to be renamed Live…with Nobody. A shot of two empty chairs in the morning doesn’t exactly make great television. Especially if stations are paying for it.