|MORNING NEWS WARS|
October 29, 1999
CBS hopes to heat up the morning news market with the launch of "The Early Show." Media correspondent Terence Smith reports on this lucrative time slot. Then, read extended excerpts of the interviews Smith conducted.
SMITH: For the past five months, CBS News has been getting ready to
do battle. Its weapon ... a 30-million dollar, state-of-the-art, street-level
studio in the heart of New York City. Next week, the network will launch
a fresh assault in the high-stakes morning news television wars.
CHARLIE GIBSON: I just want you to know, I'm not running for anything.
TERENCE SMITH: Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer of ABC getting up close and personal with their indoor audience at "Good Morning America's" new glass-walled, street-level venue ...
MATT LAUER: I'm Matt Lauer along with Katie Couric and we've come down to check these people out.
TERENCE SMITH: And NBC's "Today Show" hosts sharing face time with folks gathered outside their famous sidewalk studio in Rockefeller Center.
STEVE FRIEDMAN: It's going to be a full-fledged, three-way war. Three-way wars are a lot more fun than two-way wars, I think
|The growth of morning news|
TERENCE SMITH: Executive producer Steve Friedman spent 10 years at the "Today Show," helping raise it to the top of the morning news heap, where it remains today. Now CBS News is counting on him to lift its perennial also-ran morning show into the perennial thick of the competition. Katie Couric and Matt Lauer, the hosts of the "Today Show," responded to Friedman's battle cry.
KATIE COURIC: It's television. I hardly would describe it as war. If it's war, I'm not a soldier in it.
MATT LAUER: It is war, I guess in a financial sense. I mean there's a lot at stake. The morning's are hot.
STEVE FRIEDMAN: The way the marketplace is right now on morning television, it's the only time in network television where the total audience is growing. Forget who's first, second, or third. I believe that morning television is the new frontier, the new war, the new way networks can make their move on news.
TERENCE SMITH: Indeed they can. In the last five years the number of American homes with television sets in use from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. has grown 11 percent. The "Today Show" alone has 34 percent more viewers than it had five years ago.
RICHARD HACK: You have people who get up at the same time or even earlier now because they have longer commutes; there is more traffic. They have less time to scrub their face and change the dog dish. And they want their news, they want their information before they leave the house, so when they go to the office and stand around the water cooler they're informed.
TERENCE SMITH: Author Richard Hack, a former columnist for TV Guide, has written Madness in the Morning, an account of the 45-year competition among the morning news broadcasts. He notes that while the morning news audience is growing, the evening audience is shrinking ... substantially.
RICHARD HACK: That audience has decreased. And it has decreased not only because people have these longer commutes; sometimes they don't make it back home in time for the evening news, but because when they do get home, they have more time to look at cable, to look at the Internet; to have any number of distractions that previously weren't even in existence.
|Adding to the network's bottom line|
TERENCE SMITH: And there is network gold to be mined in the morning.
The economic stakes for "Good Morning America" and the other network news shows in the morning are huge. They share a gross revenue pool of about $600 million worth of advertising; if one of these can increase its ratings by one point it brings in an extra $70 million in revenue. Steve Friedman says that CBS realizes in order to be competitive as a network overall, they must be a player in the morning.
STEVE FRIEDMAN: The fact is, financially, the difference between being first and third in the evening might be $15 to $18 millioin. Financially, the difference between being first and third in the morning is $150 million. That's why Diane Sawyer's there. That's why Bryant Gumbel came back. That's why NBC pays Katie Couric $6 or $7 million. That's why people at CBS would invest tens of millions of dollars in a street level studio, just to get us on the playing field.
TERENCE SMITH: If CBS does even modestly well in the morning, it will quickly make back the tens of millions it spent building this new studio and begin to amortize Bryant Gumbel's five-million-dollar a year salary.
TERENCE SMITH: Gumbel, who recently anchored the failed prime time CBS news magazine "Public Eye," concedes that the stakes are high.
BRYANT GUMBEL: Look, I'm aware that there is a lot at stake. I'm aware that CBS has a considerable investment in this. I'm aware that there are people who are going to be anxious to, to see how the Bryant Gumbel on CBS compares with the Bryant Gumbel of, of NBC years.
TERENCE SMITH: Gumbel has always been a lightning rod in the morning. His fans see him as a probing interviewer, his critics as arrogant. Steve Friedman is familiar with both reactions.
STEVE FRIEDMAN: Bryant Gumbel is a different kind of television performer. 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.
|Reinventing the morning news?|
SMITH: Over the last four decades, morning news has changed -- but not
a lot. The "Today Show" debuted in 1952 with the garrulous Dave
Garroway, paired at one point with J. Fred Muggs, the chimp. CBS soon
followed with newsman Walter Cronkite, aided and abetted by a puppet Lion,
Charlemagne ... the morning shows have always been a mix of news, features
and low-rent entertainment.
TERENCE SMITH: The "Today Show" pioneered the latest new big thing -- the street-side studio -- 40 years ago.
JACK LESCOULIE: All these people out here are all going to work, I think. They may be late, too, as a matter of fact, but they're on 49th Street right outside our communications center here.
TERENCE SMITH: Reinventing itself, the "Today Show" brought the street-level view back in 1994. The broadcast quickly pulled into first place and has remained there for 200-plus weeks. "Good Morning America" felt it needed a face-lift too. This fall it rolled out its own state-of-the-art studio. Anchor Diane Sawyer likes the interaction with the audience.
DIANE SAWYER: It's automatic energy. It's orange juice. It's a B-12 shot, to have people wandering in off the street, and they look up, and there you are, and maybe Garth Brooks is singing or a camel is -- had too much fiber. Anything can be happening in the morning when they're going by.
TERENCE SMITH: Charles Gibson says that "Good Morning America" has evolved into something very different from what he first started doing nearly 13 years ago
CHARLES GIBSON: It is a much more spontaneous broadcast. It is off script. It's basically what's going through your head at the moment, and it's also pushing toward a little bit more high energy, and that's the reason for these changes and sets.
TERENCE SMITH: Sawyer seems to revel in the more relaxed venue of morning television. Here she watches underwear model Antonio Sabato demonstrate his fitness with a two finger push-up ... and when the cameras stop rolling, she tries it herself, in front of a live audience.
(SAWYER ATTEMPTING PUSH-UP)
|Reluctant network affiliates|
TERENCE SMITH: But what about CBS? Even with its new studio and a familiar face in Bryant Gumbel and a fresh face in Jane Clayson, can the network rise from its perennial third place status in the morning?
BILL CARROLL: Who else is going to be part of the cast?
TERENCE SMITH: Bill Carroll of the Katz Television Group is not so sure. He advises network-affiliated stations on programming. Most CBS affiliates, he says, are making money with their own local news broadcasts in the crucial seven-to-eight o'clock hour.
BILL CARROLL: One of the big hurdles they're going to have to face is in the most recent CBS morning incarnation, a number of their stations established a 7 to 8 a.m. local presence, and a very successful local presence, and in many of those markets, they're going to take a "wait and see" attitude on the Bryant Gumbel effort
TERENCE SMITH: Doesn't that condemn the new CBS effort to lower ratings, if many of its affiliates won't even clear the hour between 7 and 8 in the morning?
BILL CARROLL: Yeah, it's going to be a problem.
TERENCE SMITH: What are you going to recommend to your clients, the affiliates?
BILL CARROLL: Leave the local news that's working at 7 o'clock, and run the new Bryant Gumbel "Early Show" at 8 o'clock.
TERENCE SMITH: CBS reported this week that three-quarters of its affiliates plan to carry the new broadcast in its entirety. Bryant Gumbel says the key to overcoming the remaining affiliate reluctance is, well, news.
BRYANT GUMBEL: Our first half-hour is going to be as hard a news half-hour as there is on television and as comprehensive a, a news half-hour as there is on television because we firmly believe, that if you don't deliver the news you lose -- plain and simple.
TERENCE SMITH: Beyond news, Friedman says he is prepared to cut special deals to book high-profile, marquee guests ... deals such as promising multiple appearances, a kind of journalistic horse-trading that the "Today Show" recently renounced.
TERENCE SMITH: So, you're ready to deal.
|Morning deal making|
STEVE FRIEDMAN: I'm ready to deal. And the "Today Show" says they're not going to deal. They won't deal unless they're forced to. Maybe they will; maybe they won't.
TERENCE SMITH: Katie Couric says they won't.
KATIE COURIC: I think deal making is very dangerous in this business.
TERENCE SMITH: Why?
KATIE COURIC: Because you can be held hostage by a movie company, a publicist, an actor or actress, an author who obviously wants maximum air time but it gets into the editorial decision-making where it's inappropriate. You know, you're doing eight parts on a movie that frankly ain't very good or doesn't deserve that much national airtime.
TERENCE SMITH: The "Today Show" displayed its draw for top talent and willingness to pounce this week, when it scooped up singer Mariah Carey. CBS had planned to kick off "The Early Show" with a Carey concert outside their studio on Fifth Avenue. When they failed to get permits in time for Carey's deadline, she bolted to the "Today Show."
MATT LAUER: There are going to be some ferocious, behind-the-scenes battles for the top names.
TERENCE SMITH: Beyond the booking wars, there is the content of the show itself. Will the hard news approach work for CBS? Author Richard Hack has his doubts.
RICHARD HACK: The idea that CBS has for "The Early Show" is to make it more edgy, hard news type of broadcast. Bryant Gumbel works very well in that type of format and of course CBS has a lot of history doing that kind of show. Unfortunately, nobody has remembered that it doesn't work. What happens with that kind of program is that you get people to tune in, they expect to see the "Today Show," they expect to see "Good Morning America," what they get is CNN. If they wanted CNN, they would tune in CNN.
TERENCE SMITH: But Bryant Gumbel thinks his prospects -- and those of CBS -- have never been brighter.
BRYANT GUMBEL: I'm going into this, obviously, expecting to do well, and hoping to do well, but I'm not going to slit my wrists.
TERENCE SMITH: Perhaps not. But executives at CBS News -- and the other cash-strapped news divisions -- recognize that the morning time slot is their best opportunity to build audiences and in the process, prop up the bottom line.