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"Good Morning' hopes to open more eyes

Hoping to stem the flood of viewers that have deserted Good Morning America in recent months, officials at ABC announced Monday that former GMA host Charles Gibson and 20/20 anchor Diane Sawyer will take over as "interim hosts" in about two weeks, guiding the program until permanent substitutes can be found.

Gibson, who left GMA in April after nearly 12 years on the show, teams with Sawyer to replace Kevin Newman and Lisa McRee. They worked together less than nine months.

The new anchors take over Jan. 18, joining new executive producer Shelley Ross and executive-in-charge Phyllis McGrady, also named Monday.

"We are demonstrating how important we feel the franchise of Good Morning America is to ABC News," said ABC News president David Westin in a news release. "We plan to . . . (stress) a news program that is warm, smart and practical."

The change may come just in time for GMA, which has lost 17 percent of its audience since last season.

Some days, NBC's Today draws viewership equal to the CBS and ABC morning shows combined. GMA is notching its lowest ratings in nearly 20 years.

Rumors had swirled for weeks regarding Gibson's possible return. But news of Sawyer's selection even caught executives at local affiliate WFTS-Ch. 28 as a pleasant surprise.

"Certainly, Diane Sawyer is a star _ I hate to use that word _ but she's very highly regarded," said Jim Major, general manager at the Tampa affiliate, who learned of the changes during a closed-circuit TV broadcast at noon Monday. "If Lisa and Kevin were a mistake, at least they (the network) had the guts to correct it."

A string of changes, starting with McRee replacing 17-year GMA veteran Joan Lunden in 1997, was supposed to resuscitate the show, which once ruled the ratings as solidly as Today does now. Newman replaced Gibson in May 1998.

Longtime weatherman Spencer Christian was, until Monday, the most recent casualty _ departed for San Francisco's KGO-TV this month.

Now, Newman is headed for correspondent duty on the late-night news show Nightline, and McRee will return to Los Angeles, consigned to the same kind of "special projects and assignments" role that awaited a post-GMA Lunden.

Though Sawyer told reporters Monday she expected the job to last "a few months," an ABC News spokeswoman said the duo will stay as long as it takes to groom worthy successors. Sawyer and Gibson also will continue anchor duties on various editions of 20/20.

"This is an open-ended situation," said Eileen Murphy of ABC News, while admitting "it is unlikely (Sawyer and Gibson) will stay with the show in the long term."

There's no denying Sawyer's star power at ABC News _ she's likely behind only news diva Barbara Walters. Sawyer's recent accomplishments include bagging an exclusive interview with independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr.

A stint on CBS Morning News in the early '80s proves Sawyer has morning show experience, but can she bring the empathy, energy and wit that helped ease McRee's transition?

Most important, will morning show viewers _ who generally respond slowly to change _ accept another major shake-up on ABC's 23-year-old morning program?

"Obviously, we feel viewers will respond well," Murphy added. "We're giving the program the best the news division has to offer. We think this will stabilize the show and turn it in the right direction."

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