Morse describes GMA Weekend as "launched on a shoestring. And it's always been dubbed 'the little show that could.' It gets by with a very small staff of very dedicated people." Ratings for the Saturday show have it trailing NBC's Weekend Today, and on Sunday, the program ranks behind both Weekend Today and CBS' Sunday Morning. But the show's fourth quarter ratings show growth; for both GMA Weekend Saturday and Sunday, ratings were the strongest (in terms of total viewer delivery) for any quarter since the program debuted in 2004.
Morse, at the helm of a young broadcast that demands of him pre-dawn wake-up calls, is also a husband and the father of a toddler daughter (with another child on the way). "It's certainly a challenge," he says of the work/life/early-morning-hours juggle. "I think the key is to just always have a sense of balance in your life and to remember at the end of the day what is truly important."
How do you give the program a familiar, Good Morning America-feel, but yet also keep it distinctive and fresh -- how do you achieve that balance?
I think we're able to achieve the balance, by and large, with our anchors, Kate Snow and Bill Weir, as well as Ron Claiborne and Marisol Castro, who are each very talented and who each bring to the table very unique, very exciting, very energetic, and very smart personalities. It's very important for us that we maintain and strengthen and bolster the GMA identity and the GMA brand, which has been built up over so many years, but we do want to be different. And I think the way that we're different is that we're able to build on the strengths of our anchors. We're also able to take more chances, because there are fewer eyeballs on our broadcasts. I think that gives us the ability to reach out, to be a little bit different, to be a little more off-the-wall, a little quirkier, to move beyond your typical, morning show formula.
Bill and Kate have been co-anchors of GMA Weekend since the program's inception in 2004. Do you have a plan for when the time comes that one or both of them leave the show? Do you think about that?
But that said, there will come a day, when Bill and Kate, I'm sure, will move on, and when they do, we'll start thinking more seriously about what we do next. But I think for now, there's too much to look forward to. And I think we're really hitting our stride at the moment, so we're trying not to look too far into the future.
What is your typical schedule, day-to-day?
I wake up Saturdays and Sundays at about 2:45 [a.m.] and get into the control room sometime around 3:15 or 3:30. I'm generally in the office Tuesday through Sunday, and I take off after the show on Sunday, and I take off Monday ... and I hope at some point I'll reach a point where I can take Tuesdays off and have a semi-normal weekend.
Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays are generally filled with meetings, and a lot of planning and a lot of show administration. And then when Fridays roll around it's usually like going to battle. We have a very small staff, but a very talented staff, and everybody's really firing on all cylinders Friday into Saturday. So Fridays are a very long day -- where I'll get into the office anywhere between 7 or 8 in the morning and stay until 8ish, 9ish at night. Which isn't a horribly long day, but then when you have to turn back around and be in at 3:30 in the morning on Saturday, it catches up to you. And then Saturday is the real marathon, where I'm waking up at 2:45 and, again, I'm in the office until 9 o'clock at night or, if there's breaking news, even later, before turning around again and coming back in early Sunday morning. So it's grueling. As I've said, it truly feels like going into battle every Friday-Sunday.
How do you prepare for the program with regard to your own personal newsgathering -- what do you read and watch, and which Web sites do you check out before the show?
On any given day, I try to get through The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and the New York tabloids, just as your basic diet that I have to get through every day. And usually I'll check out Drudge and Politico.com, since it's the political season as well. And it's funny, because I've had to amend my diet a little bit since starting at GMA. Whereas I used to always make sure I read Time and Newsweek, and Economist, and Foreign Affairs, all of which I still read, and now I find myself grabbing People, and Entertainment Weekly, and InStyle, occasionally Vogue. You work a lot of muscles you don't use on some of the other broadcasts.
You have risen through the ranks at ABC News rather quickly. To what do you attribute your success?
Luck. [Laughs] Certainly luck is a factor. But I don't think there's a substitute for hard work, and for experience. When I was 22 and just starting out in the business, I had been the editor-in-chief of my college newspaper, so I thought I knew everything there was to know about journalism. Never mind that I had never worked in television, I just thought I knew everything there was to know. And I couldn't quite believe that I was answering phones and faxing [when starting at ABC News], although I did it with great gusto.
I've always had terrific mentors, every step of the way and every job I've had, who've helped guide me and teach me things. I'm a pretty good listener.
I also was in a very unique place, especially overseas, and I had a very unique opportunity to work with some real pros, some great veterans who've given decades to this business. Having the opportunity to watch and learn from some of the best in the business was invaluable experience.
In the television news industry, who has been a mentor? Who has inspired you?
It's a pretty broad range. My very first job, as a desk assistant in Washington, Sam Donaldson had just returned to the White House beat. So to be just starting out, and seeing Sam back at the White House, and having the chance to chat with him and watch him report, that was a pretty unique experience.
|"Our first date essentially happened under the auspices of talking about underage prostitutes."|
At the same time, David Brinkley was still anchoring This Week. So when I was a very young kid, being able to chat with David was a real honor, about that broadcast and about his great experience in journalism over the years.
My first job at ABCNews.com, I had the opportunity to work with Jeff Gralnick, who really put me on a path and honed my journalistic instincts and made me smarter and made me better. I've had the opportunity to work with some really unbelievable writers. From Jim Wooten, who recently retired from ABC News, about as poetic a journalist as there is, to Bill Blakemore, who's a great ABC veteran who I spent many months in Afghanistan with, and Mark Litke, who was our longtime Asia correspond who recently retired. The three of them really taught me the importance of just great writing, and more importantly than anything else, reminded me that what this business is all about.
And also, again, as a young kid in the business, getting the opportunity as a desk assistance to watch from the sidelines how Nightline came together, with Ted Koppel ... to be able to sit down and have real conversations with Ted was remarkable. In fact, the whole Nightline environment in particular, Ted Koppel and Tom Bettag and Leroy Sievers, taught me the importance of good leadership and good management and how important it is to stay true to the story and stay true to the people who are out there getting the stories.
How have your overseas experiences helped shape you as a journalist?
You learn the importance of being self-sufficient, and you learn to value the benefits of being part of a team. And it seems like a contradiction, but it's not. You learn to be self-sufficient in that you're a long way from the Mother Ship. So you don't have access to all the resources that you have back here in New York, so you learn to do everything. You spend all this time with your team, and you learn how important everybody's role is and how everybody needs to dig in and do a little bit of everything.
What do you think of the way U.S. networks handle foreign news coverage? Should there be more foreign news coverage, or is there sufficient coverage?
I think, unquestionably, there needs to be more ... And I think if we give people more, I think that they'll watch it.
A good example is several months ago, when the unrest in Burma was unfolding, the networks covered the story admirably, did a solid amount of coverage. And we made the decision to take nearly four minutes out of our second half-hour, which is the time that we usually reserve for consumer-friendly feature-y, laid-back segments, to do a very lengthy profile of Aung Sang Suu Kyi, simply asking the question, "Who is Aung Sang Suu Kyi?" and answering it for our viewers. And I generally don't like to live and die by the ratings and the numbers we pull, but that was one story where I was pleased to see that the ratings seemed to show that people were genuinely interested.
I understand you met your wife while on overseas assignment?
Just before I moved to Asia, I produced a Nightline story with Bob Woodruff about the trafficking of women from the Balkans to Western Europe for prostitution. I was very interested in the topic of human trafficking and was looking into doing a story throughout Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. And a mutual friend introduced us and told me that I need to meet this woman named Ana to talk about human trafficking. So our first date essentially happened under the auspices of talking about underage prostitutes, which, even now, thinking about it, makes me laugh. Ana was living in Hong Kong, working for a publishing company and doing independent research into trafficking in Asia. When I moved to Hong Kong, I didn't know a soul. The friend who introduced me to Ana was my first friend in Hong Kong, and Ana was my second. And three months later, I proposed to her over email from Baghdad.
Tell me about the ABC/Facebook partnership -- you're quite involved in that endeavor.
I spent a lot of time thinking about how we engage young people in the political process, how we get them watching, how we get them reading, how we get them to pay attention, when they, by and large, are getting their news in a different way, at different times of day, than people did in the past. Facebook is an incredibly powerful Web site. Powerful in the sense that it can galvanize opinion and vast numbers of people very, very quickly, and I was drawn to them one day by a story that I saw -- a group on Facebook had popped up, and within 24 hours, 800,000 people subscribed to it, which I thought was just remarkable.
So originally, I came up with the idea that we would partner with them and try to, essentially, hold a series of town meetings on college campuses across the country, and engage the opinions of younger people in terms of which issues inspired them and which issues they were interested in. And the relationship evolved over time and we decided, together, to partner for this [Presidential] election. And Facebook has evolved into a Web site that has much broader appeal than just a younger audience, although they tend to skew younger, and we tend to skew, obviously, much older. And we thought it would be an incredibly powerful proposition if we could somehow take a younger audience and take an older audience and merge them together, if you will, somewhat, into focusing on this election.
What I thought at the time we started talking to Facebook, is that there will be a story, a big story of national importance, be it a terror attack, a major political event, be it a national tragedy, where people will turn to Facebook in much the same way that past generations turned instinctively to Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather. And while I still think in times of crisis, people turn to the networks as their primary source of information, I think millions and millions of people turn to Facebook at a time like that. We had a story like that, as we were still in our early discussions with Facebook, and that was Virginia Tech. The shooting was really the first story where people engaged on Facebook for news and for information and to exchange condolences and to support each other, and I think we've seen that in ensuing stories. But that gave a really important window into the power of what we're trying to accomplish with Facebook.
Do you see yourself ever doing something other than journalism one day?
All I've ever wanted to be, for as long as I can remember, is a journalist. That said, throughout my career, being exposed to some of the places that I've been exposed to and some of the things I've had the remarkable fortune to see, has also opened my eyes to the broader world out there and to different and potential opportunities. So, while I find it hard to envision getting up every day and not being a journalist, the opportunity to explore different places, to work overseas again in some sort of a different capacity, is something that's always very intriguing.
Do you have any kind of personal mission statement or personal philosophy?
There's a quote from Teddy Roosevelt that I have taped to a small corner of my desk where virtually no one else can see it, but from time to time I do look at it. And if I do have a mission statement or a personal philosophy, that's it. The short version of it is that, "There's always a way." The longer version, which Teddy Roosevelt said far more eloquently, is "Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat." I try not to let anybody else see it, but I think it's a reminder that it's always good to take a chance.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]