In Paramount’s Morning Glory, Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams) is hired to be an executive producer at a morning news show, and it doesn't take long for her to realize how inglorious the job can be. Her anchors hate each other. The hours suck. And her ratings are in the toilet—until she straps her weatherman into a roller coaster and trains cameras on him for a live shot where he screams and nearly throws up. By the end of the week the clip is a YouTube sensation, as the G-force of the ride down seems to cause an inverted ratings spike. The stunt is so successful, the poor guy will next be thrown from an airplane and sent on aerobatic flight maneuvers.
Hah! On the real Good Morning America, Diane Sawyer once passed out in the cockpit from the G-force during her flight with the Blue Angels. In fact, she looked so sexy while fainting, you worried the Navy pilot needed a cigarette afterward. The weatherman? He was sent off on more terrifying job-swap assignments—first as an Avon lady, then as an armpit sniffer for a deodorant company. How do I so vividly remember these segments? I assigned them, as one of just two female executive producers of a real morning show in 25 years.
Morning Glory is set in a fictional network, IBS, where the lame morning show, Daybreak, trails in the ratings behind NBC’s unstoppable Today show, followed by ABC’s Good Morning America and “that thing on CBS, whatever it’s called” (their words, not mine). I more than humbly acknowledge that I bear no resemblance to the stunning McAdams or her fictional character. Harrison Ford and Diane Keaton, however, are, hauntingly at times, dead ringers for Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer, whom I produced for more than five years in the morning. In fact, seeing the passive-aggressive Ford character peering down his nose over his reading glasses in the editorial meetings nearly gave me a rash. Ford’s brilliantly familiar Mike Pomeroy embodies Gibson’s Princeton snobbery as he turns to his young producer and sniffs, “No polish, no pedigree.” Coanchor Colleen Peck (Keaton) is a former beauty queen, as is (wink, wink) Diane Sawyer. She is also very game in the morning, willing to kiss frogs for the camera, dance in pink tutus, and get in the ring with a sumo wrestler.
The only thing Charlie Gibson ... oops, I mean Mike Pomeroy ... wrestles with is that after the first half hour the show has more entertainment than news. Pomeroy wants to present only the “important” segments he finds worthy of an evening news anchor and seems to worry more what his drinking buddies will think (fun cameos include Morley Safer, Chris Matthews, and Bob Schieffer) than what his viewers want in the morning. And therein lies the rub. Viewers have different needs in the morning than at any other time: they wake up and want a quick scan of the headlines, subconsciously listening to find out if a plane went into a building overnight or if a bomb went off in a subway. When they hear the teases for the latest medical breakthrough or the newest celebrity in rehab, it is a signal that their world is safe.
For Becky, the challenge is daunting. Just as Ginger Rogers danced the same steps as Fred Astaire, only in high heels and backward, those in morning news must meet the same standards of accuracy and good storytelling as at other times, only in the middle of the night and often with bone-crushing sleep deprivation.
Early on, Becky is warned about her anchor by a cute guy at the office (Patrick Wilson) who says, “My condolences ... on hiring the third worst person in the world.” Hey! Hollywood fantasy alert! No one warns you about that. (In my experience in the world of high-risk, high-reward live television, you are not warned which anchors will blame you for what doesn’t work while taking the credit for everything. And no one will tell you when your anchor is canvassing the entire building just to find someone, even an intern, to agree you chose the wrong lead.)
Admittedly, I was braced for higher octane from screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada). Among the women who navigate the egocentric, male-dominated broadcast-news world, the story bar has already been set high. One can still easily recall the piercing dialogue from the 1976 masterpiece Network. When longtime news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) learns he is being fired because of low ratings, he doesn’t throw a tantrum, he announces on live television that he will commit suicide by shooting himself in the head during the next Tuesday's broadcast. “Television is not the truth,” Beale says. “Television is a goddamned amusement park.” (Hmm—could that be why the weatherman rides a roller coaster?)
The modern-day anchor-monster evolves again in Broadcast News (1987), as James Brooks captures the daily adrenaline rush of a brilliant young news producer (Holly Hunter) who often outpaces the best and brainiest. The changing landscape becomes evident when the better reporter (Albert Brooks) is passed over for the better-looking new guy (William Hurt). While the Hunter character seems confused and emotionally vulnerable as both men try to sleep with her, she remains unflinching when it comes to the news. When the news-division president says to her, “It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you're the smartest person in the room,” she replies, “No. It's awful.”
By the end of Morning Glory (be warned—slight spoilers ahead), Becky saves the morning show, lands the cute guy, earns the respect of her cynical anchor, and, by the time her contract is up, even has a job feeler from NBC. Yes, that was my experience, too, but here’s why Morning Glory may live up to its promo as “the feel-good movie of the fall”—maybe “the year” for me. In the end, Becky gets to have a full verbal blast at her pompous anchor, telling him exactly who he is and how he’s been undermining her earnest attempt to save the show. Then, in another Hollywood fantasy scene, old Pomeroy sits on a bench with his young producer and says, “Let me tell you how it all turns out. You end up with nothing [dramatic pause]—which is what I had until you came along.”
Those beautiful, albeit sappy, words made me downright giddy as I finally got to hear how complete strangers, the scriptwriter and actors under the producer banner of the great J. J. Abrams (Lost), think morning-show anchors should behave toward each other and the people who get them on the air every day. You see, I never got a nice chat on a park bench. If I may share how it really turns out: despite my 80-hour weeks, my loyalty, integrity, and documented success, I got to read a headline on Drudge that I had been fired. Then I was vilified with every sexist cliché, all just days after signing a new three-year contract.
I actually loved Morning Glory as much for the memory of how great and rewarding it once was as for the fantasy of how it could have been, how it’s supposed to be, where anchors and producers arm-wrestle their stories to the ground to find the right balance between what people want to know and ought to know. Then again, it’s why I love the movies: so a girl can still dream.
Shelley Ross is a veteran television producer best known for her 17 years at ABC News, where she won three Emmys, a Peabody, and other honors.