Newman Loses Co-hosting Job

As the clock wound down on a Good Morning America broadcast last week, co-host Kevin Newman was promoting highlights for the ABC network show the next day. One was an interview with a former host of the program who now anchors occasional specials for ABC. Said Newman, reading from a teleprompter: "We'll have Joan Lunden talking about life after Good Morning America." Then, the Toronto native gave a quick grin and broke from the script to add: "I'll have lots of questions to ask her." That remark - which Newman later conceded was not spontaneous - drew guffaws from the crew. With good reason, since it marked the first on-air acknowledgement of news that ABC announced two days previously: after eight months as co-host, Newman is leaving the high-profile position to become one of five correspondents on ABC's late-evening current-events show, Nightline. Said a reflective Newman later: "If you can't make fun of yourself, someone else will do it for you."

That self-deprecating quality has helped the 39-year-old Newman ride out the highs - and many lows - of the past year. Few in American television have risen higher, faster than Newman. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario who worked as a reporter for Global, CTV and CBC, he honed his hosting skills over two years at CBC's Midday. ABC recruited him in 1994 as co-anchor of its overnight news program, and he rose through a variety of positions. After winning raves for the manner in which he anchored coverage of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, on the Labour Day weekend of 1997, he was tapped to co-host the revamped morning show.

Now, eight tempestuous months later, that is over. At the same time, ABC announced the replacement of the executive producer and the departure of co-host, Lisa McRee: the pair will be replaced for an unspecified period by Newman's predecessor, Charlie Gibson, and high-profile journalist Diane Sawyer. But as Newman sat in a downtown Manhattan coffeeshop, still rubbing makeup from his face, he said cheerfully: "Regrets? Not even a few."

Perhaps - but for anyone doubting the multimillion-dollar stakes and take-no-prisoners nature of the major American networks, Newman's tale is instructive. It also shows what life can be like for a self-described "private person by nature," an introspective Canadian who suddenly found himself front and centre on the television sets of the world's most powerful nation - and a society obsessed by celebrity. "The first time you see your face on the side of a New York City bus, it's a huge kick," Newman says. "By the time you can't shop with your kids in a mall anymore because people won't leave you alone, it wears much thinner." Last summer, Newman's wife, former television journalist Cathy Kearns, was diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis. His first instinct, he says, "was to keep the news where it belongs, only in the family." (The couple have a son, Alex, now 12, and a daughter, Erica, 9, and live in a small community in neighbouring New Jersey.) But when a tabloid newspaper said it would publish the news, the family decided to issue a news release describing her condition (which has not shown many symptoms).

When Newman was named last May as only the third male co-host in GMA's 23-year history, the ensuing publicity campaign included the full trappings of superstardom. They ranged from larger-than-life billboards of Newman in New York City's Times Square to an appearance on CNN's Larry King Live to a profile in People magazine. ABC News president David Westin described Newman as "our face of the future." The fact that he was a Canadian was not an issue, Westin insisted: "We want the best person. Period."

It seemed too good to last, and was. Consider Westin's contrasting comments at the news conference last week announcing the shakeup at GMA. Even before Newman's arrival, ABC News already had so many Canadians - led by their biggest star, anchor Peter Jennings - that other employees joked sardonically its call letters stood for "America By Canadians." Westin was asked whether he would hire more Canadians in the future. "Are there any left?" he asked sarcastically, suggesting that he thought ABC had hired them all. (Following the changes, the highest-ranking GMA survivor is Canadian producer Fiona Conway, formerly of CTV. She has been asked to stay, but is considering other offers within ABC.)

In fact, Newman's nationality was an issue - because it affected the way he and viewers related to each other. "There are things about America that Kevin simply did not get," says one ABC staff member. Then, there were the small-but-significant differences in pronunciation and word usage, which baffled viewers. Last week, when Newman talked about a "toboggan," his fill-in co-host, Elizabeth Vargas, looked briefly mystified, then said: "Oh, you mean a sled." And Newman says he discovered that "nobody in America knows what eavestroughs, serviettes and garburators are."

To make matters worse, Newman is not a fan of team sports - and his unfamiliarity with baseball was too apparent last summer when the country was obsessed with Mark McGwire's and Sammy Sosa's successful pursuit of Roger Maris's home-run record.

Those differences could have been endearing - or simply annoying. Meanwhile, Newman discovered things about his own character and Canadian-ness. "I'm not shrill," he says. "My strengths are quiet ones, and they serve me well in the long run - but here, you have to promote yourself, and lay more of your life out there for everyone to see. I didn't understand that."

Newman's honeymoon at GMA lasted, he says, "about three weeks". By the end of June, the first critical reviews were in from other media, decrying the show's fondness for pandering interviews with celebrities and ignoring hard news. That criticism, Newman conceded, was accurate, "and our focus did not play well to my strengths and background in hard news." He chafed at some interviews, recalling, "One day I was interviewing the trainer of the latest Lassie dog and couldn't think of a damn thing I cared about to ask." A piece in USA Today compared Newman and McRee unfavourably to their competitors at other networks - especially front-running NBC, where the ratings for Matt Lauer and Katie Couric are higher than those of ABC and CBS combined. A three-year-old ratings drop at the show continued, and the independently owned affiliate stations, who make huge profits if ratings are high by selling local advertising time on the morning show, were clamoring for action.

As well, the network conducted focus groups - with findings relayed to the hosts. "Sometimes," Newman says, "it helps to know when you cut people off in mid-sentence or say 'um' too much. But it's less helpful when what people focus on most is whether you wear glasses." (Some of the most emotional comments came when Newman switched from glasses to contact lenses, and then back.)

Newman says that two months into the new job, "it seemed inevitable that this was not going to last. We were no longer following news: our problems had become the big New York media story of the year." Then, ABC technicians went out on strike - just as the show was about to go on a cross-country tour to try to boost ratings. The trip was cancelled. Following that, the New York Post became the first of a number of media outlets to speculate that Newman and McRee, a perky blond Texas native, were feuding and not speaking off set. Newman denies such friction, but says: "We are different kinds of people, and that can make good chemistry. But at the outset, that was not the case with Lisa and me on-air."

Despite his understated manner, Newman is known among colleagues for his drive and single-minded focus, and those qualities helped carry him through the recent months. "The show had the potential to become a fiasco taking everyone down with it," says one staff member. "Kevin was determined not to let that happen, and he showed a great deal of class and courage." His manner of confronting stress is to eat more: despite his air of calm, he gained five kilograms in two months on "chocolate and other awful stuff." Normally a sound sleeper, he began waking up several times a night before the 3:30 a.m. alarm.

By Dec. 23, Newman recalls, the rumbles about the show's future had become so noisy that he asked for a meeting with ABC officials to discuss their plans. "I told them that if they could not offer me 100-per-cent support in the job, there was no point in continuing." He was informed that he could remain with the show for up to another year, "but it was clear that I did not have full support. That left me no choice but to ask to be relieved as quickly as possible."

That departure is eased by several factors. One is the move to the critically acclaimed Nightline, to which he was invited by host Ted Koppel. As well, he has two years and four months remaining on his three-year contract with ABC. Although he will now earn less than the estimated $1 million he made as a co-host, his lowered salary, says one colleague, "will be nicely into six figures."

Another reason for his sanguine manner, Newman says, is his appreciation of the depth of emotions and experiences he underwent in so short a time. "If I had a choice of whether to do it all again, I would, because only a few people ever live life at that level." Some memorable experiences centred around breaking news such as the collapse of the Russian ruble, which took him to Moscow to anchor the show, and the ongoing impeachment proceedings surrounding President Bill Clinton. Others revolved around what Newman describes as a "kind of Pleasantville existence: people like Tom Hanks or Robin Williams or Garth Brooks would suddenly turn a corner and be in front of me in the studio." Those, despite his distaste for celebrity interviews, "were great kicks."

Newman is now planning what he calls his "transition period." He has a month off before Nightline, and knows exactly how he will spend the first week. At 9:01 on Friday morning, with his last show behind him, he will leave the studio and go to a barber, where he plans to get his hair "cut real, real short - maybe a buzz cut."

Then, he will get into what he describes as "my one great extravagance" - a recently leased BMW Z3 sports car - and point it towards Toronto. The trip can be completed in eight hours, but Newman, who says driving "clears my head out," may take two days to do so, while Sarah McLachlan, Pearl Jam and the Brian Setzer Orchestra blast from the CD player. Newman will travel alone, while his wife stays with the children: it will be the first full week since university, he says, when "my time is completely unstructured, and all my own."

When he gets to Toronto, his mother, Sheila, a 63-year-old legal adviser who is retiring this Friday, and sister Debbie, 31, an investment broker, will be waiting. He will visit friends during the week, and at some point he and his mother and sister will visit the grave of Kelly, his late sister, who died two years ago of a brain tumour at the age of 34.

More than anything, Newman says, the loss of Kelly "taught me what matters in life, and what is just details." And remembering her, he says, will help him take stock of himself. "I've taken 15 years to get to this point, and now I plan to use this month to stop and think about where I've gotten to, and the next stage that lies ahead." When he does, he can look back on a road that has been busy and, recently, sometimes bumpy - but hardly ever boring.

Maclean's January 18, 1999