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New day for "Good Morning America'?

Charlie Gibson leans forward, speaking in a slightly conspiratorial voice, as crew members rush to put away the cameras, cords, microphones and props that have helped bring another edition of Good Morning America into the nation's homes.

"I don't think that was a very good choice today," he says, reflecting on the decision to lead a program last week with a story on recent stock market fluctuations. "Too technical."

It's a candid admission from the co-host of a show working hard to stay a distant No. 2 in the morning ratings race. But then again, Gibson's got little to lose these days.

On Friday, he marked the end of more than 11 years on ABC's vaunted morning show, once a champ in the early hours, now stuck with ratings among the lowest the show has seen in 18 years _ usually two points behind the top performer, NBC's Today show.

Viewers and co-workers said goodbye to Gibson _ who in person leavens a near-professorial demeanor with jokes and lots of kidding around on the set _ through a two-hour tribute held in Manhattan's famous Tavern on the Green restaurant.

Filled with appearances from celebrity ABC employees ranging from Barbara Walters and Connie Chung to former GMA hosts David Hartman and Joan Lunden, the show proved an appropriate but sometimes awkward send-off for the man who took over GMA from Hartman on Feb. 23, 1987.

"I feel like everybody's sitting around waiting for me to cry," said Gibson, sitting in ABC's Manhattan studio days before the fete would begin. "But to me, it doesn't feel like anything. Mentally, I'm already gone. Maybe it will hit when this is all over."

Executives at GMA have used Gibson's departure as an excuse for yet another step in overhauling the struggling show. Viewers this morning will see a new stage set, new graphics, new opening theme and a new co-host, former newsreader Kevin Newman.

"Morning television is all about relationships . . . and now (viewers) have two new people to get to know," says Newman, already featured in a giant Times Square billboard urging viewers to "say good morning to our new morning team."

Paired with co-anchor Lisa McRee, Newman represents a new dynasty for GMA, now preparing for a move to brand new digs along Times Square next year by ditching its trademark homestyle set today _ the first time in the show's history that the program will feature surroundings that don't evoke a middle-America living room.

Those watching this morning will notice immediately: Gone are the fireplace, bookshelves and comfy couches that made the occasional hard news guests such as U.N. ambassador Bill Richardson look so silly.

Instead, McRee and Newman will work in a more professional-looking space beginning today, featuring mock-ups of the huge windows that will likely serve as the central feature of their Times Square space when it becomes operational.

"This set will take you from the suburbs and into the city," says Shelley Lewis, named executive producer of GMA just a few weeks ago.

Days before Gibson's last broadcast, technicians had already dismantled great sections of the cavernous, loft-like space that once served as GMA's home, forcing workers to move couches, chairs and tables into different configurations for each interview segment.

"We couldn't live with this set "We couldn't live with this set anymore . . . it's so hollow and cold," says McRee, who blames much of the show's focus problems on its homey, bland setting.

But critics have found other places to lay blame.

GMA is a show without focus, they say, unable to decide whether it's a newsy show with elements of lighthearted features, or a lighthearted show that occasionally brings hard news.

And its chief rival, Today, keeps coming out on top _ gaining new energy by opening windows in its Rockefeller Center studios to the crowds outside in 1994, simultaneously creating a tourist attraction while making every broadcast seem like a fan-besieged mega-event.

GMA, stuck in a giant, windowless room near Central Park West, can only encourage studio technicians to laugh heartily at the hosts' jokes in hopes of bringing some energy to the show.

Even as Gibson should have been basking in the glow of publicity leading up to his final GMA telecast last week, Today was stealing the world's attention through its "Where's Matt?' stunt.

Featuring popular anchor Matt Lauer broadcasting from a different, faraway country every morning (destinations included Athens, Greece, and Venice, Italy), the promotion seemed to sap crucial attention from Gibson's farewell in a way similar sign-offs from Lunden and former Today co-host Bryant Gumbel never faced.

While both Gibson and Lewis say the timing was coincidental, McRee doesn't doubt that Today executive producer Jeff Zucker is enjoying the synchronicity. "Zuck is the most competitive person I know," she says, noting that Zucker used to call her at GMA shortly after she took Lunden's place on the show last year.

"He would say, "I'm a big fan of your work, but we're going to squish you like a bug,' " McRee says, shuddering at the thought. "It was very . . . well, I didn't care for it."

Blond and energetic _ some might say, perky, even _ McRee exudes a focused empathy and good cheer that's nearly contagious. When her blue-gray eyes focus on you, it seems she's giving her undivided attention.

"We're trying not to be so esoteric with our news," says McRee, a former news anchor at Los Angeles' ABC affiliate, who still commutes west on weekends. "The first thing I said when I called the office on Sunday was, "Please tell me we're not doing Whitewater . . . or the third rehash of the James Earl Ray story. Nobody cares."

When McRee took over for Lunden, she faced down pundits who said she was simply a younger, perkier version of the woman who had co-hosted GMA for 20 years.

And what if Today's ratings lead _ which sometimes equals the ratings of rivals GMA and CBS This Morning combined _ grows?

"Now it's time to really change the show, and that's always scary," says McRee. "Do I think we're going to turn the ratings around . . . (long pause)? I don't know. But who would want to come to work if you thought it was hopeless? Just show up every day and do the best you can."

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