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Latest CBS Overhaul Suggests Morning TV Is Not for Sisyphuses
November 30, 2010  | By Tom Brinkmoeller

Successive American presidents in the '60s and '70s ordered all-out bombings in Vietnam as an arguably oxymoronic weapon of peace. Peace, of course, lost.

In a smaller scale of carpet bombing, CBS News presidents, stretching back to the '60s, have ordered repeated obliterations of the network's morning-news troops. The latest happened Tuesday, when the shards of the network news operation that Edward Murrow helped build dumped Agent Orange all over The Early Show set and did away with anchors Harry Smith and Maggie Rodriguez and weather reporter Dave Price.

This is, it seems, the seventh time since 1999 that a previous magic-personnel formula has been redrawn with new on-air faces that are sure to work -- finally.

Presidents tend to say odd things at times like these. CBS News President Sean McManus is quoted in the Associated Press story as saying, "We just felt the timing was right to start planning for the future."

That's uber-odd. Is he saying the decades of changes in the CBS morning-news formula were unplanned? Or has he consulted with Marty McFly and Doc Brown and plans to unwind history, Back to the Future style? I am suspect of news produced by someone who gets away with such statements.

(Should you have a thirst for more details on CBS' Morning, Bloody Morning campaign, look up this Wikipedia posting on The Early Show -- even if you allow liberally for wiki-sloppy facts, it's not a story to be telling young children.)

There was a time when the changing of the principals of a theoretically important news program caused a lot of comment and speculation and several well-placed essays of outrage. There was a time when television news was taken more seriously, when the quality of the product often outweighed the revenue it produced.


Fred W. Friendly, who worked alongside Murrow in the early years of CBS News, took over the presidency of the news operation in the early '60s, not long after Murrow was pushed out. Friendly fought sizable battles with CBS' profit-oriented executives over the wall that should exist between news and entertainment. When the entertainment cadre prevailed in early 1966 and Friendly wasn't permitted to broadcast an important Congressional hearing on the Vietnam War, and an I Love Lucy rerun was shown instead, it was the last straw and Friendly resigned. Outrage followed.

Outrage isn't fashionable any longer, especially when it comes to The Early Show. The changes happen with some regularity, as they did Tuesday, and hardly anyone notices. The ratings remain in last place as CBS devises another way to beat Today at its own game. Which is outrageous for a couple of reasons. The first is that Today isn't worth imitating any more. Jeff Zucker, soon to exit the top post at NBC Universal following the sale to Comcast, ruined Today when he took over the show in the early '90s and turned it into a bottomless entertainment hole into which countless empty features have been thrown over the years. Zucker's bent for malicious destruction of property subsequently was rewarded with higher and higher positions of NBC power in which he ruined even larger pieces of television.

Today is broken. That it has imitators who also long for similar mechanical problems is inscrutable.


Rather than try to compete in the morning olympics of mediocrity, CBS has its own model for excellence up and running successfully since 1979: Sunday Morning. This 90-minute program is appointment television for the millions who value it. It's thoughtful without being arrogant. It's timely, but still makes time for in-depth feature pieces. It contains tons of top-notch journalism, some of it very serious and some a whole lot of fun. It's a gem that thrives on its excellence.

Someone at CBS realized this shortly after Sunday Morning debuted, and for a while weekday versions took over the morning-news spot on the network. Then a higher-ranking someone at CBS started counting beans, was unhappy with the tally and pulled the plug. And for three decades, while hopelessly chasing its NBC competition, all the subsequent experiments have yielded no higher bean counts.

Year after year CBS could be called the Sisyphus Network for its fruitless attempts to reach the top of the morning ratings, only to have the boulder it's pushing roll to the bottom and have to begin its impossible quest again. Wouldn't it be wonderful if someone there who remembers when CBS was known as the Tiffany Network would decide to chase class again and give viewers the choice of singularity again in the morning?

Wish I felt it was worth a bet.




Neil said:

CBS News has two programs that still aspire to quality, Sunday Morning and 60 Minutes. Neither, in my opinion, is quite as good as it was at its pinnacle, but each continues to be profitable while maintaining quality and respectability.

If I were to give any advice to my fellow high school alumnus, Les Moonves, I'd recommend he hold a seance. Raise the spirits of Don Hewitt, Robert Shad Northshield and Charles Kuralt, and hold a otherworldly brainstorming session.

In fact, while they're at it, get some tapes of what NBC News did on radio in the 1970's. Back then, they launched the News and Information Service, which turned the normal network program clock on its head, putting the local affiliate stations in first position and backfilling the rest of the hour with national news, sports and features.

I'd like to see the first ten minutes of each half hour provided by each local affiliate, concentrating on local news weather and traffic, and then fill the other 20 minutes with long form features and news interviews. But with quality as the goal, not fluff.

The CBS brain trust needs to ask themselves why it is that the broadcasting service with the largest audience and most consistent growth in recent years has been ... NPR. Might it be that viewers and listeners are just fed up with being fed crap? Maybe it's time for CBS to take a good hard look in their rearview mirror.

Comment posted on December 1, 2010 2:09 AM

Tausif Khan said:

I am a relatively young person and I love CBS Sunday Morning News because at 9 o'clock in the morning it is hard to find a program that complements a quiet weekend morning as well as this show. Its scenes from nature segment at the end of the program got me hooked and has me trying to wake up early on Sunday Mornings to try to catch it.

I am surprised this show is on CBS as its tone and presentation style make it seem more attuned to being on PBS.

Comment posted on December 1, 2010 1:33 PM

Tom Brinkmoeller said:

You went to school with Les Moonves? What an interesting profile that would be: The guru in adolescence: CSI: Cafeteria; Survivor Calculus; When WIll I Meet Your Mother. . .
Returning to the matter at hand, I agree -- many viewers "are just fed up with being fed crap." And looking for the alternative gets all the harder. I learned today that Tom Brokaw has another hour-long news special scheduled. The last was on CNBC, which seemed an odd place to showcase the work of a man who brought millions of viewers to "NBC Nightly News" for years.
But this next one, "Tom Brokaw Presents Bridging the Divide," is described this way in the AP story:
"Roughly timed to the half-century anniversary of the beginning of the U.S. civil rights movement, the special tells stories of people actively fighting bias they encountered in their own lives. Subjects include a woman who had both legs amputated and became a scholar, track athlete and model and is a role model for the disabled, and a single mother whose 11-year-old son committed suicide after being bullied.
"Brokaw said the 'stressed state' of the nation due to economic woes and a lack of confidence in the future is the kind of thing that breeds intolerance."
Sounds serious and worth watching, right? Well, unless you happen to stumble across USA at 7 p.m. on a Friday night (12/10), you'll miss it totally. Why isn't this scheduled for the NBC schedule? Well, there's a "Minute to Win It' in the prime-time schedule that night, and we all know how important that is.
Will Brokaw's next news special land on Syfy? Probably.

Comment posted on December 1, 2010 4:35 PM

Neil said:

Yes indeed, Mr. Moonves and I went to the same high school on Long Island in the mid-60's. I was a sophomore while he was a senior, so we overlapped for that year, and also likely overlapped for a year in junior high a few years prior to that. Admittedly, I didn't know him at the time, though it's possible we crossed paths working on a school play that year (the details of which have long ago faded from memory).

(For whatever it's worth, that same high school has also produced Steve Buscemi of Boardwalk Empire and Fred Armisen of SNL, in addition to others I can't recall at the moment.)

I didn't know about the Brokaw special, but given your description, it's sad that NBC feels the need to dis their former flagship anchor in this way. A better solution would have been to hold the program a few weeks and air it in the interregnum between Christmas and New Years Day on the main network. And actually promote it beforehand as something worthy of a viewer's time and attention. If nothing else, it might bring some desperately needed polish to NBC's mostly-pathetic weekday schedule.

Minute to Win It, you say? Bah, humbug!

Comment posted on December 2, 2010 1:40 PM
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