October 29, 1999
Steve Friedman, executive producer of CBS's new "Early Show," recently spoke with media correspondent Terence Smith about the new, three-way morning news "war." The following are extended excerpts from the interview.
TERENCE SMITH: Are we on the brink here of a new morning news war --
|A morning news war|
STEVE FRIEDMAN: -- No question about it; it's war. I mean, you've had
war between two networks in the morning. Now you're going to have war
between three networks. CBS, always like the little weak sister. "Captain
Kangaroo" on for an hour; hard news for Mr. Paley. I don't know
if we really want to get into it. Let's get into it. False starts. But
now it's gonna be full-fledged three-way war. Three-way wars are a lot
more fun than two-way wars, I think.
|Big stakes in the a.m.|
TERENCE SMITH: You talk about making money. If this show -- if CBS,
with this new show, picks up a single rating point in the morning, translate
that into dollars.
|A studio is a natural|
|TERENCE SMITH: It seems to the outside observer that what
we're going to have after November 1st is three clones of each other,
three morning news broadcasts from street-side studios with a couple of
principal anchors and a mixture of news and entertainment.
STEVE FRIEDMAN: Well, they're not clones of each other because every program is a focus -- the focus of a program is who does it and what they do. So Bryant and Jane are not Diane and Charlie, are not Matt and Katie. Saying that, I have to tell you that television is a derivative media. NBC is bringing back "21" because Regis Philbin did well in his summer run.
TERENCE SMITH: With a, with a quiz show.
STEVE FRIEDMAN: Yeah. Now it didn't take NBC six years to come up with a quiz show; it took them six minutes to come up with a quiz show. We, we, we are coming up with quiz shows ourselves, whether it be "Survivor Island," "$64,000 Question." The real question you have to ask is "What took CBS and ABC so long?" NBC made hundreds of millions of dollars. Now the studio isn't the only reason it made it, but it gave it an advantage. What we are trying to do, at ABC, I believe, and at CBS, is take away NBC's advantage in the morning.
A studio is unnatural. No one believes that this is a real living room. No one believes that this is a real kitchen. It's an office building somewhere, where they have the set looking -- it's not real, you can't grab it, you can't hold it. Street-level studio -- it's a location. You can come and visit. You can reach out and touch. People like you are there. That's what gives it a center; that's what gives it a feeling. You also get electricity. You never know what's really gonna happen because each day is different. The people out there are different. The crowd out there is different. You're on a set; every day's the same.
So our friends at NBC have had a six-year head start. Now I was there. I built that studio. I know it gave us an advantage. I'll tell you wa -- one of the reasons the other networks waited so long. Because they didn't believe it would succeed. They thought America was too sophisticated for that. They thought -- this is the '90s, not the '50s. They were wrong, 'cause Americans like to have fun, and Americans like to be on television and they like to see people like them on television.
TERENCE SMITH: You ran the "Today Show" for how long?
|The news -- then something exotic|
|TERENCE SMITH: Tell me about the show you're going to produce
and what you expect it -- particularly the first half hour, and the approach
you're going to take.
STEVE FRIEDMAN: Three jobs in morning television. Tell people what happened between the time they went to bed and time they got up. If the world is over, don't go to work or school; have a beer and lay there. Okay; don't even get out, don't even get dressed, don't go anywhere. Two, you gotta give them information they can use in their life. Money, health, et cetera. Gadgets. Internet. Whatever. Because people want more out of television than just staring at it. Three is a two-parter. You have to give people something to talk about when they leave, or when they get on the phone or on the Internet, and you have to give people something to smile about. Mornings are very stressful. So we have to do those three jobs.
The first half hour -- I would say even more than the first half hour. The first 40 minutes of our program, I want you to feel that we gave you everything that was going on that day, whether it be money with the Market Watch and Susan McGinness, whether it be live interviews, whether it be taped, whether it'd correspondence, whether it'd be debates. We want that first 40 minutes to be hard and moving. Hard and active. Not passive. Not a report about yesterday but what's gonna happen today. So that's what the first 40 minutes are. Then I think you gotta get into something that's exotic, something that's "hot" at 7:45, to keep that audience there for the 8 o'clock.
TERENCE SMITH: So exotic?
STEVE FRIEDMAN: Yeah. It's something like Miss America. Should she be allowed to have kids or be divorced? Something that's water-cooler stuff. Then on Mondays, we're gonna do sports. We believe that men should have something to watch on these morning shows. That they're too feminized.
But you know what? Sports isn't just male. The last time I looked, this place in Pasadena, there were 105,000 people watching some women kick the ball around. When I, when I got to the baseball game, they're not all guys there. At the football game, they're not all guys there. At the basketball game, they're not all guys there. So this idea that sports is somehow 4 o'clock in the morning television, I don't believe that, and then at 8 o'clock we are going to be more reflective, a little slower, a little change of pace.
If every segment is four minutes, it's boring. If every segment is 30 seconds, it's boring; if every segment is eight minutes, it's boring. You gotta vary it. Eight o'clock is gonna be a little more reflective because we take a closer look at things that are happening, and that's where a lot of the contributors will come in, to, to sort of like direct the program to, to a certain theme. But you have to be ready, on any day -- and this is where Jeff and the people at the "Today Show" have done the best job. You gotta be ready to take that format and junk it, throw it out, because people want to know what's going on. The "Today Show" right now has appropriateness. So if they do a half hour's worth of news and a hour and a half worth of other stuff, you know what you say? Fine. If they do an hour's worth of news, an hour's worth of other stuff, you say fine. If they do two hour's worth of news and nothing else, you say fine.
I think the other two programs have struggled with that. Sometimes our friends at ABC, they do news, but is it news? Sometimes they do self-help when you're looking for news. They haven't got the right mix yet. And, certainly, at CBS, we've struggled, over the years, to find our right mix.
|A sharper, edgier program|
|TERENCE SMITH: And the formula you're now going to is --
sounds like a very familiar one that you helped develop at the "Today
STEVE FRIEDMAN: Well, you have to look at CBS in the morning in two ways. Either we're due, 'cause it's been 45 years in third place, or we're doomed. We'll never win; we'll never get out.
TERENCE SMITH: As you think about this coming, looming war, how much of that morning audience is up for grabs, from the "Today Show," from GMA?
STEVE FRIEDMAN: When "Good Morning America" put Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer together, a move that saved their franchise, they got about 7 or 8/10ths of a point jump. They went from 2.9 to about 3.8. When "Good Morning America" went from the west side of New York to Times Square, they went from about a 3.3 to a 3.9. So I would say there is about 6/10ths of a rating point, to a rating point, there, that wants to experiment. That wants to look. Our jo -- we, we're tumblers right now. We want to go in there and create some movement in the audience. We've gotta start shaking, shaking that audience a little bit, and, and try to get as much as [sic] that rating point as we can.
TERENCE SMITH: There are only so many great guests for a morning show. Are we looking at a booking war between these three broadcasts?
STEVE FRIEDMAN: Yeah. We're, we're -- look -- we're Winston Churchill. We gotta beat them on the air, we gotta beat them on the sea, we gotta beat them on the land. Somebody asked me why we decided to build the street-level studio on "Today." I just came back in '93 and Colin Powell was a guest, and Colin Powell was on all three shows at the same time with the boxes. One of them was live, I think we had him on live, and the other two pretaped, and I said that day, that if we don't do something different, why should anybody watch us? OK. So that's when we decided to take the show to the street. Now, as you go into the next generation, people will say you're Colin Powell-izing everything. It's gonna be the same stuff over.
TERENCE SMITH: Homogenizing.
STEVE FRIEDMAN: Yeah. I only can say that Bryant and Jane are different than Matt and Katie, and if they had the same guest, I don't think it'd be the same interview. I think you'll see a sharper, edgier program, more about the guest and the world as opposed to about Matt and Katie. Certainly Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson have a different style of doing what they do. It's softer, it's more reflective, it's easier, and a lot of people like that in the morning. We are, we are gonna go for a quicker pace.
|A battle for second place|
|TERENCE SMITH: You have got a lead personality who, as you
well know, has both fans and critics, and yet who has had his greatest
success in the morning.
Tell me your thoughts on that, on Bryant Gumbel.
STEVE FRIEDMAN: Bryant Gumbel is a different kind of television performer -- and I'll use that word, performer, in a positive way -- of anybody I've ever met. Most people on television, no matter who they are, do say to the audience, "I want you to like me." Bryant does not. Bryant says to the audience, "I want you to respect me." He never asks the audience to like him. He'll never have a Sally Field moment. OK? And that is both attractive to some, and not attractive to others.
I feel that morning television misses what Bryant Gumbel brings to morning television. That edge, that excitement. You never know when he's going to go for the jugular. You never know when he's going to ask this question. You never know when he's going to say, "You know, we just put a segment on that sucked," because on the other shows everything's great, nothing is ever bad. No matter how bad it gets, it's still great. You do a movie, and the movie is terrible -- "Ah, it's so good to have you here, we're so happy to see you." You know, Bryant would say, "Gee, are you disappointed in the movie? It really didn't do -- it isn't very good."
You know, these are the kinds of things that people miss in the morning. We have one person on morning television who's so happy every day you just say -- you want to say -- you just want -- [makes sound] -- you just want to say, "Come on -- nobody can be that happy. So I think realism in the morning's important.
He misses live television. There's only two places to do live television on the networks. "Nightline" -- job's taken -- and morning television. I think he misses morning television. I think morning television misses what he brings.
We are not fools. OK. We know that the best way to surround Bryant is with people that you can like, and Jane and Mark and Julie and John, and the contributors, are people you will like. I mean, we're not stupid. We also are not gonna ask Bryant to be something he isn't. He is Bryant Gumbel. Love him or leave him. There he is.
TERENCE SMITH: I want, I want to know where you think you'll be in this broadcast six months ahead.
STEVE FRIEDMAN: Our hope is -- and nobody knows how good we're going to be. You know, we, we assume we'll be great. You know, we gotta go do it. Talk is cheap. We would hope six months from the time we get on, that it's a battle for second place. We want our friends at "Good Morning America," every Thursday, when the ratings come in, to say, "I wonder if we're in second or third." That's where we want to be in six months.
TERENCE SMITH: A battle for second place?
STEVE FRIEDMAN: Right. You can't be first until you're second, and then once we dispose of "Good Morning America," we'll try to make a run at the -- the juggernaut -- the unbelievable -- the unbelievable machine that is "Today," the same people, by the way, who produce a show called "Later Today." So they can't be too smart if that's the show they produce, right?
TERENCE SMITH: That's great. Thank you.