Last fall, amiable weatherman Sam Champion was riding high as part of ABC’s “Good Morning America” team that sprinted past NBC’s “The Today Show,” breaking that show’s two-decade run as the nation’s most popular TV morning show.
The longtime New Yorker loved his job, loved his city. He was not seeking new climes.
But the Weather Channel Chairman David Kenny and President David Clark enticed him with the Atlanta-based network’s ambitious plans to revamp its morning show. “AMHQ,” which launches Monday, will offer more of a one-stop destination, including some news, sports and pop culture in the mix.
Champion was excited by the prospect of joining them as managing editor and morning host.
The two executives then made a request they worried could be a deal breaker: If he were to take the job, they wanted Champion to move to Atlanta.
“He’s part of the fabric of New York City, so how were we going to convince him?” Clark told an audience at a Four Seasons welcome party for Champion last week. After they asked him, “Time froze. We waited for his answer and he said, ‘Yeah, I agree. It has to be Atlanta.’ And he started giving us our own arguments back at us.”
Champion said he wanted to be closer to the action, with face-to-face access to the network’s 220 meteorologists at headquarters. He liked the idea of being the face of the 32-year-old network, a network facing challenges in a world where more people are accessing weather info on their smartphones instead.
For the Weather Channel, Champion was a huge get given his national footprint and popularity among the 6 million daily viewers of “GMA.”
“Their plans were genius to me,” Champion said with wide-eyed enthusiasm during a recent interview. “The more I heard of the opportunities, the more interested I became. And I realized I would regret it if I said no and not try something that I considered momentous.”
His contract with “Good Morning America” was up, so the timing was idyllic. But he was torn. Over Thanksgiving weekend, he posed the question to his husband, Rubem Robierb.
“It was about a life I know vs. an unknown,” Champion said. “I married a Brazilian. One thing you have to know about Brazilians. Everything is spiritual with them. He’s an artist. God directs your movement as an artist. He said it’s this divine thing. He just looked at me and said, ‘I’ll go wherever we need to go.’ “
Starting Monday from 7 to 10 a.m., Champion is going to lead the fast-paced new program “AMHQ” with co-anchors and meteorologists Mark Bettes and Maria LaRosa.
“Sam has this energy that pops,” LaRosa said. “You just buy what he’s saying. If he told me the sky was purple, I’d believe him!”
Champion said the show will naturally focus on the weather upfront but will also include elements that pop up on “GMA” or “The Today Show.”
“We don’t want people to change the channel,” he said. “We want them to get everything they need before they go out the door.” It also will be live all three hours in all three time zones, so the 9 a.m. EST hour will include a live weather focus for the West Coast.
His admiration for the Weather Channel runs deep. “I’ve watched the Weather Channel from the time they launched. I’m still surprised when I run into (anchor) Kelly Cass in the elevator. I worship Jim Cantore.”
Born with a name that practically pre-ordained his future as a TV broadcaster, Champion was a military brat, moving from city to city. He initially wanted to become an architect. But at Eastern Kentucky University, TV drew him in. At first, his goal was foreign correspondence work, “hanging with world leaders.” Then he fell in love with weather after being assigned in college to do graphics.
After stints as the weather guy on TV stations in Kentucky and Florida, he landed a plum job at WABC-TV in New York in 1988, where he won Emmys for weather specials. In 2006, “Good Morning America” bestowed upon him the weather gig.
He connected with the audience and his “GMA” mates. “He had this great bromance with Chris Cuomo (now at CNN), then Josh Elliott,” said Darcy Bonfils, a producer who joined the Weather Channel with Champion from “GMA” because she found working with him “motivating.”
They went on adventures together, including the Amazon forest where he did a zip line and into the Gulf of Mexico, where he dove into the muck that was the BP oil spill. “He’s super game to do anything,” Bonfils said. “I cheer him on. I’m kind of like his enabler.”
She knew he could have stayed at “GMA” for a long time.
Instead, Champion is taking a far riskier path, uprooting himself from what is still considered the media capital of the world.
“I was shocked, shocked he decided to leave New York,” Monica Pearson, the retired Channel 2 Action News anchor, said at the Four Seasons welcome party, “but he saw an opportunity and he jumped for it.”
Champion and his husband quickly rented a place in Midtown Atlanta and placed their two-bedroom condo in the Upper West Side of Manhattan up for sale. (They also own a place in Miami, so if Champion needs beach time, Atlanta is closer than New York.)
Why Midtown? “It’s not just the gay thing,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s that I’m coming from an urban environment. Midtown gives you that. It gives you walkability. I can walk to get my coffee, go to my dry cleaners, hit the grocery store. It feels like the Upper West Side 15 years ago.”
The one thing he said he’ll miss? Having a studio that opens up to Times Square. “I would love to be in downtown Atlanta on the street. I’m going to miss talking to the audience. They give you so much energy, so much love.”
At age 52, he will be the elder statesman on the morning show. “It’s a little jarring,” he said. “I always felt like the kid in the room. Fortunately, I’ve learned at the feet of the masters.” He then ticked off legends by their first names: “Barbara,” as in Walters. “Peter,” as in Jennings. “Diane,” as in Sawyer.
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