Robin Roberts and Diane Sawyer Open Up About Making Morning TV History

From the former Good Morning America duo’s bumpy on-air start to Roberts’ emotional cancer battles

When Roberts (r.) joined Sawyer as anchor of ABC’s Good Morning America in 2005, it marked the first time that two women had hosted a national morning news show. Yolanda Perez for Adweek

In 2005, one year after the launch of TVNewser (now owned by Adweek), morning news history was made when Robin Roberts joined Diane Sawyer as anchor of ABC’s Good Morning America. It marked the first time ever that two women had hosted a national morning news show. They worked side by side for five years, until Sawyer departed in 2009 to anchor ABC World News (she stepped down in 2014 and now focuses on long-form interviews and investigations as an ABC News anchor). ESPN alum Roberts—who had been a GMA contributor for a decade before she was named anchor—remains on the show, now alongside anchors George Stephanopoulos and Michael Strahan. As part of TVNewser’s 15th anniversary this month, and this week’s 30 Most Impactful TV Newsers of the Past 15 Years package, we reunited Roberts and Sawyer. The duo spoke with Adweek TV/media editor Jason Lynch and TVNewser editor A.J. Katz about their time together, including their bumpy start on-air, how Sawyer helped Roberts publicly and bravely share her cancer battle with GMA viewers—twice—and what they miss most about working together.

Adweek: What do you remember most about your early time together on GMA?
Sawyer: I’d been on for a while with Charlie [Gibson]. Robin shows up, and I just remember all the lights in the room being brighter. There was sun where there wasn’t sun.

Roberts: Diane always made me feel that way, but it was a bit intimidating. I was a little insecure coming from the sports world to, I mean, Diane Sawyer! But they never once, Diane in particular, made me feel like I didn’t belong.

Sawyer: I remember the first time or the second time I interviewed you on some sports thing on Good Morning America, and I mangled your name so badly and your title so horribly that you went, “Whatever!” and just turned to camera. [They both laugh.]

We’ve seen morning news duos with great chemistry, and others where it hasn’t been so good. It’s a job where you can’t fake that, or you only can fake it for so long. What was it about your chemistry that worked so well on GMA?
Roberts: She’s a good old Southern gal. We are mirror images of each other in a lot of ways and how we were brought up.

Sawyer: Sometimes I think we had the same parents.

Roberts: I often feel that way. After Hurricane Katrina, my sister was living with my mother for a time, and my sister said, “Do you know that Diane calls and talks to and checks in on Mom?” I was like, “What?!!?” And Diane never told me that. You can’t fake that. Yes, we care about the show, and we want to do well. But if it stops there and it’s not about who you are as a person and who you are outside of the studio … that’s something I never had to worry about with Diane.

Sawyer: We saw the world and what we wanted to cover in a lot of the same ways. You don’t just talk about the problem, you go in and try to help everybody understand what can be done if you can.

Diane, when you started at GMA back in January 1999, the perception at the time was that you were doing ABC News a big solid by coming in to help save the show, and it was probably going to be a short-term job.
Sawyer: Three months! I really thought that. It was either Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve that they asked Charlie Gibson and I, and we both said, “OK.” I’d been on CBS Morning News and he’d been the great titan of morning television [on GMA from 1987-1998], so we both thought of it as a reunion. And then—10 years later!

So what changed?
Sawyer: Sometimes life hands you a surprise that is born out of your curiosity and your wonder and sense of adventure. But you wouldn’t have thought to yourself, That’s what I want to do. That’s the way it felt. To get there and be able to laugh, and then do a serious piece and then take our incredible road trips, and where we all become—I know it’s overused—one giant family. You don’t leave family easily.

Roberts: There’s nothing like morning television. The relationship you have with the audience is different than any other show.

Sawyer: And morning television can offer such delight. Such moving ways to think of the curtain going up on possibility every day.

Robin, you were still anchoring SportsCenter 15 years ago. How nervous were you about making the big leap from sports journalism to news, which few others had done?
Roberts: It was frightening in that I love sports. It’s my comfort zone. It was something I’d always wanted to do, so then you find that you’re saying no out of habit. When I was in local television working in sports departments, they always tried to get me to the news division because it was more money, more prestige and they liked my work. And of course I thought because I’m a girl, you don’t think I can do sports, so I was like, “No!” Then I started coming over to Good Morning America. First I did sports stories, and then I did human interest stories. So they eased me into news.

Sawyer: We couldn’t get your name right, but we were easing her in.

Roberts: Then I realized I was afraid to venture outside my comfort zone. I had been preaching to people about doing that, and here I was, afraid. I look back and I’m like, wow, all the things I’ve experienced—as great as ESPN is—I would have missed out.

In 2009, Diane, you left Good Morning America to anchor World News. Why was that a move you wanted to make?
Sawyer: Charlie had decided that he was going to stop doing World News, and in that moment it was, do I try it or not? I was really interested in what the opportunities would be to try to bring original reporting to the broadcast and, I suppose, [turns to Roberts] do I have a risk-taking gene?

Roberts: I think one or two or three—or a thousand! As great as morning television is, there is a mystique to the evening news, and to have Diane be there in that chair meant a lot to all of us. So as much as we begged her to stay and our audience wanted her to stay, we were very excited and proud to see her there.

Roberts says she and Sawyer are "mirror images of each other in a lot of ways."

You battled cancer twice, Robin. That’s terrifying enough to do under any circumstances, but you chose to do it publicly, in front of an audience of millions.
Roberts: Diane helped give me the strength. In 2007, I was in this horrible blue top sitting there with her, grabbing her hand [like] Thelma and Louise, in announcing that I had breast cancer. Do you know how many women got a mammogram that day because of our conversation? Because it wasn’t just a personal thing. It was talking about how 80 percent of people who have this diagnosis had no history for it, and educating the audience. Then for my second go-round [in 2012], I told her about my myelodysplastic syndrome and needing a bone marrow transplant and how the doctor said I had a year or two. And she went into doctor mode and called doctors all around the world, literally. She and my mother were about making my mess my message. When I get outside of myself, it really, truly helped me. Plus, I really wanted us to tell the story. We’re storytellers. I didn’t want someone else telling the story and getting it wrong.

Sawyer: But I said to you, you have the right to have your thoughts, and not everybody else’s thoughts, going through this. And you guided us toward, first of all, the love of the audience for you as a form of strength, and your love for them as a form of connection and understanding.

Roberts: This is how protective she was. She did not want me to do it initially, knowing what I was about to face, and as a friend wanting me just to focus on that. But once we had that conversation, we were like, “OK, this is a teachable moment.” That’s how I looked at the first go-round, and especially the second go-round. There were actually some people who said, “Oh, you did it for ratings.” [Sarcastically] “Yeah, I got cancer for ratings. You’re right. You called us on it. Our bad. Thought we could get it by you!” So every time we discussed it, it was to educate the public about shaving your head, chemotherapy, whatever it was. And to receive a Peabody Award saying that hey, we took this moment to actually make a true difference, I was very proud of our [news] division. It was a real connection that I’ve had ever since with our audience.

In 2014, Diane stepped down from World News. You could have kept going for years if you’d wanted, so why did you choose to do it then?
Sawyer: It just felt like the right time. I was at the end of a contract, and I was really eager to get back to longer-form pieces, which I hadn’t done for a while. And if I couldn’t go in and try to do some of the hard things that I’d always wanted to try to do, then I’d be really sorry that I hadn’t. So I got to do income inequality and propose stories that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

As you look at this insane news cycle now, and what David Muir is going through each night on World News and Robin is going through every morning, do you wish you were still a part of that, or would you not know how to deal with the news changing every five minutes?
Sawyer: All of the above. As much as anything, I keep thinking, this is great for us to have to get strong again in how we bring people information. That we have to find new ways to do it. We have to do it online in a way that succeeds and gets traction for a fact. I know we can and I know we’ve been through these before, where we all had to evolutionarily leap ahead in order to make sure we do it better, we do it right.

TVNewser is celebrating its 15th anniversary. How has Good Morning America changed over that time frame?
Roberts: When we look back over the 15 years and all the things that are happening, we had Shelley Ross, a woman that was in that [executive producer] chair before anybody else did. We went to a three-anchor format before anyone else did. Now it’s commonplace. We had two women that were anchoring before anybody else did. But we weren’t out on a soapbox. In fact, our PR department hated us because they were like, “We want to tout this more!” We were like, “No, we want to do our job.” I looked back because I knew we were going to do this [interview], and I was like, “High-five, us!” We were trailblazers in what we did in morning television.

What do you two miss the most about working together each day?
Sawyer: Being busted by her, on and off the air. Yes, I get carried away sometimes. [Laughs] She is such a reality check on life.

Roberts: This woman keeps you on your toes! It’s not demanding; it’s commanding. She doesn’t demand it, but you just want to please her. And I miss the challenge, because as she has said here, she always wants to know what you’re curious about. With Diane, it’s never an easy conversation. It’s always a little mystical. I miss that, because it makes you tap into what really matters.

Sawyer: At the end of which, you’d say, “What are you talking about?”

Roberts: And I miss that because we’re the same size, we could share clothing! I have your old dressing room, and to me, it’s still “Diane Sawyer’s dressing room.” But it has been a wild ride.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 14, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@ajkatztv A.J. Katz is the senior editor of Adweek's TVNewser.
@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV/Media Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.
Publish date: January 13, 2019 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT