Three years ago ABC News transformed its 1 p.m. Good Morning America spinoff into an hour dedicated to covering the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, GMA3: What You Need to Know.
The pandemic may have waned, but What You Need to Know is still going strong, and this week, ABC found its new team to lead the hour in DeMarco Morgan, Eva Pilgrim, and GMA3 veteran (and ABC News chief medical correspondent) Dr. Jennifer Ashton.
The trio effectively succeed T.J. Holmes and Amy Robach, who officially left the network earlier this year.
“It sounds cliche, ‘what you need to know,’ but when I sit down with the staff, that’s what our motto is. That’s what our goal is. That’s what the focus is. What does everyone really need to know? And it is totally different every day,” says Cat McKenzie, the executive producer of the program.
“As we enter into a new chapter, we’re going to keep giving the viewers everything that we’ve been giving them, whether it’s Oscar news or writers strike news or Title 42,” McKenzie adds. “We’re going to take the show on the road as we get ready to elect a new president, or maybe an old president, in this country. And really just lean into all the things that we know that afternoon viewers are interested in. Jen’s medical news, we’re going to keep going with some special shows in that vein, and really just also exploit the great talents that we have sitting next to me here.”
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to McKenzie at ABC News’ New York headquarters, joined by Pilgrim, Morgan, and Ashton, where they laid out their version for the afternoon program, which blends hard news, health stories, “news you can use” and other segments into a fast-moving hour every weekday afternoon.
“I look at it as a pot of gumbo,” Morgan said, cracking a smile. “Everybody loves the meat in gumbo, right? The meat is the news. But you’re also going to get a little bit of flavor too. We’ve had Broadway on the show, you get a lot of performers, music, you get personality.”
“You have to think about who the audience is, it’s women like me who are moms that are at home,” Pilgrim adds. “These are smart women who have varied interests. So they want to know what the headline is. They want a thoughtful conversation that gives them some nugget of information that’s different than just your average newscast that’s going to give you all the facts. They want to have some thought there.”
“So that’s on us to come up with thoughtful questions to ask that kind of helps the conversation for them,” Pilgrim adds. “But it’s also you know, deals and steals, accessories, it’s cooking, it’s parenting segments, it’s the stuff they’re talking about with their girlfriends too.”
And that includes questions and concerns around health, a big reason why Ashton has been a mainstay of the hour for the past three years.
“I started on the show in the worst medical crisis the world has seen in 100 years, squarely in just the medical doctor role, but to Eva’s point about who our audience is, I feel such a responsibility and honor and a privilege to be the only network chief medical correspondent who’s a specialist in women’s health, who is double board certified also in obesity medicine and has a degree in nutrition,” Ashton added. “And what the last three years I think really showed us all is that everyone, women and men, care about their health, their wellness, their nutrition, their weight.”
And in TV, they care about the anchors as well. Ashton, Pilgrim and Morgan all acknowledged the unusual relationship that viewers have with TV personalities, and McKenzie notes that the 1 p.m. time period means that viewers are often more engrossed in the program than early in the morning or later in the evening, when they may be preoccupied with other things.
“You want to see people come into your homes that are real, real people,” Morgan says. “And I think that’s what you get with this show. You get a little bit of everything. Sometimes you may cry, you may scream at the TV because you’re upset about an issue.”
“I think that the viewing audience is entitled to know certain things about us as real people because it’s a two way street. You know, we’re coming into their homes and talking about very important issues that affect them,” Ashton says. “And even though it’s a unidirectional way of communicating that relationship now, I feel like doesn’t have to be one sided.”
It’s something Ashton has personal experience with.
“I lost my children’s father to suicide in 2017. And that was a public story and headline because of my position here. And I was not able to be on the air for six weeks and I didn’t know whether I would ever be able to come back on the air and do my job, and it was only because of my family here at ABC that I was able to do that,” Ashton recalls. “That’s when I learned how powerful that two way relationship with our viewers is because I heard from thousands of viewers, and they told me that ‘you helped me by sharing your story.’”
It’s that ability to blend the serious, sincere and helpful with the lighter touch that morning shows are known for that McKenzie hopes will make the new iteration of GMA3 click.
“I think we’ve been very fortunate in that we’ve had some crazy ideas and people have let us kind of run with them,” she says, citing a recent example, “Wedding in a week” (the show featured an on-air proposal on Monday, and the couple was married on-air on Friday).
“And we’re also fortunate that we’re a new show,” she adds. “I think if you watch World News or GMA, people know what to expect when they get those shows, they have been on the air for 20 years… but we’re kind of new, people give us give us the grace, if you will, to be different when we need to.”