NEW YORK - This Wednesday's farewell block party on "Good Morning America" holds about as much appeal for Charles Gibson as a trip to the dentist.
For one thing, he's not really going anywhere, other than to ABC's "World News Tonight." For another, he's been through this drill before, coming back to the show less than nine months after another going-away party in 1998.
"I kept the lovely parting gifts," he said.
By executing what by many accounts was a deft power play, Gibson moves to shore up an evening newscast buffeted by tragedy and leaves behind a morning show in transition. Decisions made over the next few weeks will determine whether "Good Morning America" can slug it out on equal terms with "Today" or have to settle for a distant second.
While Wednesday's party brings back old favorites David Hartman and Joan Lunden for visits, expect nothing like NBC's three-hour Katie Couric extravaganza.
It's not Gibson's nature. He's a suit-and-tie guy, a reserved newsman. He can be warm - goofy even - and melts at talk of family, but it always looked like daddy was home when he filled the screen.
He's plainly the show's rock, said Ben Sherwood, executive producer.
"There are some mornings when he's a lovable grump," Sherwood said. "There are some mornings when he's just plain lovable and some mornings when he's just plain grump. He's very real. What you see is what you get."
Sherwood is relying on arm-twisting and subterfuge to slip things past Gibson for the tribute.
Except for the brief time away in 1998, Gibson has logged 19 years in morning television. That's four presidents, two Gulf wars, one disputed election and an O.J. Simpson car chase ago. Britney Spears wasn't far removed from diapers when he started; now she's changing her baby's.
His mind races back to one day - Sept. 12, 2001 - when asked to recall some standout moments.
It was a few minutes to airtime and already hours of preparation and chasing down guests was behind him. He suddenly realized that it mattered little who was on or what they said that morning. What mattered was the tone he and partner Diane Sawyer set, and he'd given no thought to it.
"You could not be rattled," he said. "You could let nothing rattle you. You just needed the sense of `we're OK.' The second thing I remember thinking was that everything you've done your entire professional life has been in preparation for this moment."
Rather than add pressure, Gibson found that thought reassuring.
In much the same way, Gibson's legacy at "Good Morning America" isn't some memorable interview or scoop. It may be the show itself.
He was quiet in 1998 as the show foundered behind the inexperienced team of Lisa McRee and Kevin Newman. Only when he heard rumors that ABC News President David Westin was thinking of scrapping the "Good Morning America" name and format altogether did Gibson plead with him not to do so. That led to talks that resulted in the Gibson-and-Sawyer salvage team, arguably the most important decision Westin has made during his tenure.
"I always say to people, and this sounds Boy Scout-y, that it was such an unbelievable privilege to say `good morning, America' every morning," Gibson said.
The past year in morning television has been an example of how nothing can be taken for granted.
"Good Morning America" was on a roll in spring 2005, and had nearly ended the "Today" show's 10-year ratings winning streak during one memorable week in May. "Today" was in disarray, and there was a clear sense that a new era was emerging.
Yet "Today" regained its stride and, although Couric has said goodbye, NBC moved swiftly to pick Meredith Vieira as her successor. "Good Morning America" has the uncertain future: Gibson's leaving and so is Sherwood, weatherman Tony Perkins left last fall and still hasn't been replaced, and the summer will be filled with on-air tryouts for a male presence on the set.
"I don't know what the (`GMA') plan is," said rival Jim Bell, "Today" executive producer. "I wouldn't think it was something you'd want to keep to yourself for too long."
There's a sense at ABC that "GMA" lost its way last fall. Gibson was pulling double duty filling in for the late Peter Jennings at "World News Tonight," and developed walking pneumonia. Questions about who would succeed Jennings were preoccupying people, particularly when Gibson was bypassed.
He eventually got the evening job after Bob Woodruff's wounding in a bomb blast and Elizabeth Vargas' pregnancy doomed that team.
ABC's tough year "took a toll on everyone," Westin said. "You can't go through something that psychologically difficult, particularly as it involves death and near-death and serious injury, without it having some effect."
Still, Westin believes it was NBC's improvement more than ABC's struggles that has widened the gap between the two shows.
The average "Today" audience went up slightly from 5.97 million people last season to 6 million for the season that concluded in May, according to Nielsen Media Research. At "GMA," the average dropped 5 percent from 5.4 million to 5.14 million.
"We feel this is a war without end," Sherwood said. "In a war without end, there are things that we control and things that we don't control."
ABC plans to move ahead with the team of Sawyer and Robin Roberts as hosts. After a replacement is named for Sherwood (who is moving West to deal with family health issues), the next step is choosing a news anchor, likely either Bill Weir, Chris Cuomo or Bill Ritter.
Sawyer is eight years into a job she had originally talked about doing for a matter of months. She and Gibson also long discussed leaving together. It's likely she'll stay on at least into next year and see how the new competition with Vieira shakes out.
"Diane does a lot of things by gut instinct, and I think she'll know (when to leave) from gut instinct," Gibson said.