Morning prayer: CBS’s latest last-ditch attempt to beat GMA and Today

By Jack Shafer
November 16, 2011

You could fill a graveyard with the bodies that CBS has posed in front of its morning show cameras over the decades in its ratings pursuit of NBC’s Today show and ABC’s Good Morning America. The latest dead-anchors walking, appointed yesterday by CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager, are Charlie Rose and Gayle King.

Wikipedia stacks the names of former CBS morning show hosts like cordwood. In the 1950s, Walter Cronkite, Jack Paar, John Henry Faulk, Dick Van Dyke, and Will Rogers Jr. helped chair the show. When Cronkite was anchor, a segment was devoted to a lion puppet named Charlemagne discussing the news with him, as this picture proves. Cronkite remembers his cotton colleague warmly, writing in his biography, A Reporters Life, “A puppet can render opinions on people and things that a human commentator would not feel free to utter. It was one of the highlights of our show, and I was, and am, proud of it.”

In the 1960s, hosts Mike Wallace and Harry Reasoner were fed to the morning band-saw, and in the 1970s, John Hart, Hughes Rudd, Bernard Kalb, Bruce Morton, Faith Daniels, Lesley Stahl, Richard Threlkeld, and Washington Post Style section sensation Sally Quinn were similarly sacrificed. (Nora Ephron interviewed at the same time as Quinn for a co-anchor slot and luckily lost.)

CBS cleared its bench in the 1980s and 1990s to feed the morning shift: Bob Schieffer, Charles Kuralt, Diane Sawyer, Bill Kurtis, Jane Wallace, Meredith Vieira, Phyllis George, Maria Shriver, Forrest Sawyer, Mariette Hartley, Rolland Smith, Bob Saget, Harry Smith, and Kathleen Sullivan.

“We’ve been changing people like shirts,” the VP of a CBS affiliate told the Los Angeles Times in 1986.

In the 1990s and in the current century, Paula Zahn, Russ Mitchell, Bryant Gumbel (for whom they built a new $26 million studio), Hannah Storm, Maggie Rodriguez, and a dozen lesser lights took the morning beating for CBS.

Over this time, Today has remained the dominant morning show, with Good Morning America the strong second and sometimes first program, while the CBS’s The Early Show has blundered its way into second place in only a handful of ratings periods. In one week last month, Today got about 5.4 million viewers, Good Morning America got 4.8 million, and The Early Show got 2.5 million viewers.

Theories abound why CBS has never mattered in the morning, and none of them really add up to explain a half-century of failure. One article of faith held that the Today show had an unbeatable edge because of NBC’s hugely popular Tonight show: Habitual TV viewers would switch off the Tonight show when they went to bed and when they turned their sets on the next morning, there was the Today show.  Even if that was the case, that explanation doesn’t hold in a 300-plus-channel cable universe, especially one in which the Tonight show is no longer the ratings monster of post-primetime. Over the decades, the CBS program has performed so poorly that some affiliates, preferring to make money on their own local broadcasts, shun it (New Orleans’s WWL) or run only half of the two-hour feed or otherwise time-shift it.

Television blogger Andrew Tyndall believes that Rupert Murdoch weakened CBS in the early 1990s when he poached a bunch of the network’s well-established affiliate stations for his Fox network and CBS had to recruit weaker UHF stations to replace them.

“You can date CBS Evening News‘s fall into third place from those defections,” Tyndall writes in an email interview. CBS was already No. 3 in the mornings, so the exodus of affiliates only made the morning job even tougher for the network.

Over the decades, CBS has tried everything to win the morning. Besides putting its brightest stars on the show, it has hired the top producers from the competing shows (the Rose-King program will be produced by a former Morning Joe producer); it has moved the program out of its news division and back again; it has flipped and flopped between soft-news and hard-news; it has ceded morning time back to its affiliates and then yanked the time back; it has gone through as many name changes as Candlestick Park; and its carpenters and electricians have run its set through more makeovers than David Bowie and Madonna combined.

Tyndall attributes part of CBS’s perpetual loser status to inertia.

“Once a pecking order and viewing habits become entrenched, they become self-fulfilling. While the difference in quality is narrower than the difference in ratings, the marginal advantages of being in first place and disadvantages of being in last place (higher production values, leverage in booking wars) reinforce the audience’s tendency to act as creatures of habit,” Tyndall emails.

Meanwhile, the job of being No. 3 in the morning just gets harder and harder. MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Fox News Channel’s Fox & Friends, CNN’s American Morning, and other wake-up cable shows have further segmented the morning territories.

The new CBS morning program, which has yet to be renamed, will avoid soft news, CBS executive Fager said yesterday.

“It will be real news, hard news, but it’s not going to be all serious,” Fager said.

Tyndall interprets the show’s reincarnation as CBS News’s born-again belief in “serious, thoughtful, non-pandering content.” Tyndall makes a persuasive case for the hardness of the network’s new news vision in an October piece about Scott Pelley’s version of the CBS Evening News.

“I see [the hiring of] Charlie Rose as a note of defiance,” Tyndall says, adding that under Jeff Fager, “CBS News is sending the message that even if it is in third place, it will remain determined to deliver serious, thoughtful, non-pandering content.”

Yes, at his press conference yesterday, Fager promised no weatherman, no street-side studio, no couch, and no cooking segments in the latest remake of the CBS show. But he’s still hedging the morning by hiring Oprah Winfrey’s best friend—and failed host of The Gayle King Show on Winfrey’s OWN channel—to co-host with Rose and hold-over Erica Hill.

The morning game is more about money than it is journalism. According to Kantar Media estimates, in 2010 the Today show took in $454 million in ad revenue for its weekday broadcasts compared to Good Morning America‘s $314 million and The Early Show‘s $178 million. There’s just too much morning ad money on the table—and too much cable competition—for CBS to continue to collect the bronze consolation prize. According to one decade-old yardstick, a ratings increase of one point for a morning show was worth $70 million.

CBS can’t possibly win the morning with its new line-up. Rose, who turns 70 in January, can’t be the long-term savior of the network’s morning franchise any more than an aging Alex Rodriguez can guarantee future pennants for the New York Yankees. But to be judged a success, he and the new team need only move the needle a little bit. And if that doesn’t do the trick, CBS can always bring Charlemagne out of retirement.

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Thanks to University of Maine’s Michael J. Socolow for the history lesson. Send me to school with email to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and tune in my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns and subscribe to this hand-built RSS feed for corrections to my column.

PHOTO: Talk show host Charlie Rose speaks during a discussion regarding humanitarian leadership at the Clinton Global Initiative. Allison Joyce/Reuters

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“You could fill a graveyard with the bodies that CBS has posed in front of its morning show cameras over the decades in its ratings pursuit of NBC’s Today show and ABC’s Good Morning America.” – Quite a sentence. To put this topic into perspective there have been 2730 ‘coalition’ deaths in Afghanistan due to the fighting. So – where CBS could theoretically fill a graveyard with the bodies of news anchors the war in Afghanistan has actually filled several cemeteries the bodies of young Americans and others – and what does the media talk about? The media.

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