Sunday, January 24, 1999

'Sunday Morning' celebrates 20 years of touting the arts




BY JOHN KIESEWETTER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Fans of CBS News Sunday Morning, the leisurely magazine show with a heavy emphasis on the arts, know that no news is good news.

        “I may be the only TV anchorman who likes it when there's no news,” says Charles Osgood, who anchors the show's 20th anniversary telecast today.

        No big breaking news stories mean more time on Sunday Morning for painter Andrew Wyeth; playwrights Edward Albee or David Mamet; opera star Placido Domingo; underwater explorer Bob Ballard; jazz musician Oscar Peterson; the 50th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge; the world's largest bookstore; or pianist Vladimir Horowitz's return to Moscow in 1986.

        “I love doing this broadcast,” says Mr. Osgood, who inherited the show from Charles Kuralt in 1994. “It's the best television job I ever had.”

        Mr. Osgood, 66, opens today's show with a special “cover story,” a conversation with regulars John Leonard, Rita Braver, Martha Teichner, Eugenia Zukerman, Bill Geist, Tim Sample and Roger Welsch about their Sunday bests.

        The host also profiles singer-songwriter James Taylor. Mr. Leonard looks back on the best TV through the years. And the show ends with a composite of its trademark nature scenes.

        What sets Sunday Morning apart from all other news magazines is unabashed love of the performing and visual arts, and a commitment to uplifting stories.

        “We are broadcasting for the head and for the heart, for the mind and the soul,” Mr. Osgood says.

        When Sunday Morning started on Jan. 29, 1979, it was a beacon in the vast Sunday morning wasteland filled with religious broadcasts, paid programming, and the talking heads on Washington public affairs shows.

        “Charles (Kuralt) used to say that our great competition are the cartoons and clergy ... who were on television,” Mr. Osgood says about his predecessor, who died of lupus in 1997.

        From the beginning, Mr. Kuralt dared to be different.

        “He would much rather find a hero and point to somebody and say, "Isn't that terrific what a person does?' than to point to some really rotten thing that somebody did and say, "And next week, we'll find another rotten person to tell you about,'” Mr. Osgood says.

        “It is our good fortune to be able to report wonderful things that people are doing, and to accentuate the positive. And we do that fairly shamelessly,” he says.

        Over the years, Sunday Morning viewers were introduced to golfer Tiger Woods at age 16, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma at age 20.

        “One of the extraordinary things and traditions of Sunday Morning has been finding these unique talents and these unique voices, really very early on in their careers,” says Missie Rennie, executive producer since 1992.

Radio a priority
        Mr. Osgood had given up TV to work exclusively for CBS Radio when Mr. Kuralt signed off five years ago. He was lured back for the Sunday Morning gig, but didn't give up his four daily essays, The Osgood File,on CBS radio. He's up at 2:30 a.m. weekdays to write the four commentaries before heading over to the TV side. WSAI-AM (1530) airs only one a day, at 8:30 a.m.

        “Radio continues to be great fun,” says Mr. Osgood, one of the few network correspondents who splits time between the two broadcast media. He's also writing a fifth book, another collection of his radio and TV essays.

        “I had not thought that I was going to do any more television at all,” Mr. Osgood says. “When Charles Kuralt decided to retire, I could not have been more surprised to have been chosen to succeed him.”

Emmy winner
        In the past year, Mr. Osgood was awarded an Emmy Award for his Sunday Morning interview with Mr. Wyeth on the painter's 80th birthday. Sunday Morning also was presented a 1998 Peabody Award for a “lifetime” of achievement.

        Despite all the awards, and an explosion of TV news magazines, nobody has tried copying the format. As Mr. Osgood notes, humorist Fred Allen once observed that “Imitation is the most sincere form of television.”

        Why no copycats?

        “Because deep down, in their souls, television people don't believe that people really want this stuff,” he says. “They don't really believe that people are intelligent, and that they care about the arts, and they're interested in nature and the environment.”

        At Sunday Morning, they have these really odd notions.

        “One of our assumptions is that we're not smarter than the audience,” Mr. Osgood says.

        “If you're there (watching) for a while, you quickly come to the conclusion that the audience is smarter than we are ... We try to treat them with some respect and maintain a certain amount of dignity.”

        And he nourishes their hearts and souls. That's the good news, every Sunday Morning.

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write: 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax: 768-8330.

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write him at 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, 45202.