Michael Strahan’s Pairing With Kelly Ripa Surprising But Promising

Analysts tell Maria Elena Fernandez that ABC’s selection of NFL superstar Michael Strahan to replace Regis Philbin, expected to be announced Sept. 4, is a smart move.

Donna Svennevik / Disney-ABC

Michael Strahan?

It’s not the name most people expected to hear as the choice for Kelly Ripa’s new permanent sidekick. But once the thought settles in, the NFL superstar with the monster build and America’s tiniest sweetheart could prove to be a winning combination, TV analysts say.

Producers have not confirmed the selection of Strahan for LIVE! With Kelly but the show insists it is revealing a big secret on Sept. 4 when Ripa’s new co-host begins his gig. But Broadcasting & Cable broke the news last week, which led to several other media reports, and producers have not asked for any corrections.

“I kind of feel bad for the show because they’ve made so much of the Sept. 4 announcement and it’s the least secretive secret,” said Jen Drexler, vice president of media and women’s practices for Insight Strategy Group. “There’s speculation and then there’s speculation. The audience has been playing along on this game all the way through, and I’m a little bummed out for them. The ones who stuck it out and really got invested, I think they got robbed a little.”

Nine months after Regis Philbin retired and 59 guest hosts later—what essentially amounted to live auditions for everyone involved—the pick is 40-year-old Strahan, who played his entire football career for the New York Giants, where he set the record for the most sacks in a single season in 2001 and won a Super Bowl in 2008, his final year. Since then, he’s served as a football analyst on Fox NFL Sunday, a host on Pros v. Joes, and produced and starred in the short-lived Fox sitcom Brothers in 2009.

Strahan appeared 23 times on LIVE! With Kelly, where he demonstrated he’s as comfortable interviewing celebrities as he is hanging out with porcupines and parrots. Recently he even stripped for Channing Tatum on the show. In a ShowBiz Tonight interview in May, Strahan said he was hoping to the land the job because it “fits my personality. I get along with Kelly great. I love her. She’s really a sweetheart, and what you see on the show is what you get off the show. Which is very much me. You see me now? This is what you’re gonna get. ’Cause I’m not trying to fool anybody and be something I’m not. It’s too hard to live up to those things.”

Just as Ripa is known to share her family life on the air, Strahan would be smart to regularly discuss his relationship with his four children and acknowledge his own personal and public stumbles, which include a second messy divorce that he wrote about in his memoir, Inside the Helmet: Life as a Sunday Afternoon Warrior, where he referred to his ex-wife, Jean, as, among other things, a gold-digger. A judge upheld a prenuptial agreement in 2007 and awarded her $15.3 million—more than half his fortune. Strahan, who has been married twice, is now engaged to Nicole Murphy, Eddie Murphy’s ex-wife.

“He has suffered defeats in his sports career, in his personal life, and in his artistic ambitions,” said comedian Jamie Denbo, who worked with Strahan on Brothers. “He’s not perfect, and that’s important. I think he will be able to take on weighty subject matter with a respectful and appropriate tone. He’s a guy who has seen a lot of things and done a lot of things, and that’s who you want hosting a show like this, because he can genuinely empathize with a lot of different people and situations.”

Strahan and his famous gap-toothed smile also have appeared in many commercials and public-service announcements, hawking Pizza Hut and Snickers and supporting gay marriage and PETA, which makes him highly marketable, Drexler said. In his sports analysis, he’s demonstrated he’s a quick thinker, she added.

“Nothing he’s ever done has raised an eyebrow about him being a decent guy,” Drexler said. “I think when people watched him and Kelly together, there’s something about their very stark physical contrast that shows the audience they’re going to see different points of view and that their differences are going to be a source of content and a source of humor, which I think is going to be successful for them. One cool thing that could happen is that it could potentially diversify the audience and age the show down a little.”

Of LIVE! With Kelly’s 3.3 million total viewers, 1.2 million are women ages 25 to 54, the most coveted demographic in daytime television, according to the Nielsen Company. The majority of the show’s viewers, 2.6 million, are white; the black and Hispanic audiences are tiny—with 443,000 and 193,000 viewers respectively.

“I’ve seen Michael both in terms of doing his work on the pre-game show on NFL Sundays and saw him do a multicamera comedy on Fox, and he’s a very charismatic guy. He’s very loose and natural and I think naturally funny,” said Peter Tortorici, president of GroupM Entertainment. “He’s a great personality and has great charm. It’s also one of those things that telegenically, it’s a really interesting pairing. It has the potential to attract a more diverse audience.”

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None of this is good news for chief competitor the Today show, say analysts, who point to the NBC morning show’s declining ratings and general lack of spark as a golden opportunity for ABC to take charge of the entire morning lineup. Before the Olympics, Good Morning America broke the Today show’s 16-year dominance; after the Games, ABC did it again.

“There’s a lot to be worried about there, but not in direct relation to LIVE! With Kelly, but the combination of everything,” said Sam Armando, director of Strategic Intelligence for SMBx Group. “It’s more the combination of everything. Good Morning America is not only closing the gap but eclipsing it and then you add a lot of daytime syndication personality with this new host. I think it would be a big concern.”

Drexler agreed, adding that Ripa and Strahan will follow the appealing duo of Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos, and NBC executives might be losing sleep over it soon.

“Because Good Morning America had nothing to lose for so long, they let their anchors be people,” Drexler said. “Even Diane Sawyer exposed herself a lot when she was on. The fact that Robin Roberts is so open with the audience about everything happening with her health makes the intimacy of the show so valuable. Unlike the Today show, where Matt Lauer makes digs at Ann Curry at the Olympics. That’s not what people want to wake up to. You want to wake up to a Robin Roberts. You are rooting for her. Michael Strahan has a chance here to follow this up, show his humanity, and be a part of the magic that is ABC News right now.”

Armando said that when he heard Strahan had been selected he went straight to his computer to pull up the show’s ratings for the days when Strahan guest-hosted. What he found surprised him: the ratings were lower than when Philbin was still on.

“It was just a hair fraction in all the [demographic groups],” Armando said. “But it surprised me because he is such an unexpected choice that I assumed he must have had really high ratings. But you have to be cautious with these things, because you don’t know what guests he had on, and on this type of show, that can have a lot to do with it. What ABC has always told me in discussions is that they were looking for chemistry—someone who had great chemistry with Kelly and the conversation is free and easy and familiar. I know that I was surprised at how comfortable and good he was when I watched him. He’s very personable, and when they talk about the current news, which is a staple, he seemed very at ease and knowledgeable about pop culture and everything else that’s going on.”

Ripa, 41, took over as co-host in 2001 and quickly endeared herself to Philbin’s fans. Although she was the comedic foil in the beginning, their relationship quickly grew into a father-daughter relationship, with Philbin affectionately nicknaming her “Pippa.”

“That has to be replaced with something that has to feel genuine,” Drexler said. “Michael needs to remember that women love Kelly. So if they feel he is teasing her without it being in good humor, or he’s trying to push her out, they won’t stand for it. He’ll get run out of the village. I think viewers will be excited by him and be very welcoming but he has to tread lightly.”

Strahan himself has said he does not view the position as being Philbin’s replacement. “Nobody could ever do that,” he told ShowBiz Tonight. “If you put it in that aspect, if you think about it, it’s just too big. So I just look at it as an opportunity to go on TV and tell stories and have fun and entertain myself and other people.”

If he sticks to that, he could really succeed, said Armando, who says Ripa and Strahan have the dynamic of peers and friends: “These two appear to be almost like going to an evening dinner with the two of them.”

Denbo said the job suits Strahan because he’s “almost too charming for the sports commentary he does ... Frankly, if she wasn’t a teeny white woman and he wasn’t a giant black man, they might be described very similarly—happy, energetic, quick with a smile, and game for anything.”