Sunday, October 31, 1999

Gumbel latest weapon in morning wars




BY JOHN KIESEWETTER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Mike Wallace couldn't do it. Neither could Diane Sawyer.

        Through the years, CBS has tried numerous personalities to lure morning viewers away from NBC's Today show: Charles Kuralt, Forrest Sawyer, Maria Shriver, Lesley Stahl, Faith Daniels, Bill Kurtis, Bob Schieffer, Charlie Rose, Kathleen Sullivan, Harry Smith and Paula Zahn.

        And we can't forget Phyllis George, comedian Bob Saget and actress Mariette Hartley.

        Finally, CBS folks think they have someone who can give Today and Good Morning America a run for the money: former Today star Bryant Gumbel, who will co-host The Early Show with Jane Clayson.

        It's all about money.

        “With Bryant Gumbel,” CBS Television President Leslie Moonves says, “we have begun the long road to getting back and being competitive in that area.”

        Viewers should ask: What took you so long?

        Mornings news has exploded on the local and national level in the 1990s, as our viewing habits shifted from 11 p.m. to 5-9 a.m. Mornings have been the growth area for local news, the profit center of the modern television station.

        That's why the Tristate will see less of Bryant Gumbel than in other cities.

        WKRC-TV will carry only 20 minutes of The Early Show in the first hour. Channel 12 will stick with its mostly local news format, which beats NBC's Today and ABC's Good Morning America. Channel 12 will carry all of CBS' second hour.

        “The (ratings) numbers are too good to give up,” says William Moll, Channel 12 president and general manager.

Wheel format
        In 1996, third-place CBS had encouraged Channel 12 and other stations to adopt a hybrid “wheel” format 7-8 a.m. It gave local stations 40 minutes at 7 a.m., instead of the 50-10 split (two five-minute newscasts) used by Today and GMA. From 8-9 a.m., CBS stations only get the 10-minute local window.

        Channel 12 resisted pressure to give back the time for The Early Show broadcast from CBS' new street-level studio in the General Motors Building.

        Mr. Moll told CBS: “Why should I give up a program that's beating the Today show? And what would be a better way to introduce Bryant into this market than with a show that's already beating the Today show?'”

        CBS will continue to offer a hybrid format to some stations, though it won't say how many.

        “We are going to produce a two-hour show. But for those like Cincinnati, which has been doing very well with a local show, we will give them self-contained pieces in the first hour, so we don't look stupid,” says Steve Friedman, The Early Show executive producer who produced Today with Mr. Gumbel (1979-87; 1993-95).

        “If not in the beginning, we will get (these stations) later, because we will prove that we will be a competitive, strong show that they have to take,” Mr. Friedman says.

200 weeks at No. 1
        When did CBS finally discover TV's hottest trend? Maybe it was when ABC drafted heavyweights Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson to bail out GMA in January. Maybe it was Today closing in on a record 200 consecutive weeks as No. 1, which it surpassed Oct. 8. (The streak started Dec. 11, 1995).

        Didn't CBS executives read the New York Times story saying Today earned $117 million the first half of 1998, while Good Morning America cleared about $77 million?

        Haven't they seen morning newscasts spreading like crabgrass?

        In Cincinnati, local morning news programming has jumped from three hours on three stations in 1990, to 10 hours and 40 minutes on four stations. The morning news audience has increased, while the 11 p.m. news viewership has dropped, Tristate news directors say.

        “Mornings are one of your most important newscasts, and they used to be a throw-away,” says A. Rabun Matthews, Channel 5 president and general manager. “Now you have the decision-makers watching these newscasts. That's what make them more important.”

        Several factors contribute to our growing morning news habit:

        • People are not staying up for the 11 p.m. news because they get news on demand from cable news channels or the Internet, or watching WXIX-TV's 10 O'clock News.

        • People are up earlier to work out, get the kids off to school or make longer commutes.

        “People are using morning TV as they used to use radio — to get the news and weather they need as they're up and moving and doing different things,” says Steve Minium, Channel 12 vice president and news director.

        “Ten years from now, I think mornings will be the big ratings generators. That's where all your prime talent will be,” Mr. Minium says.

        By that time, Mr. Gumbel may be close to No. 1 again.

        “Are we going to take over the Today show by the end of the year? No!” says Mr. Moonves of CBS.

        “All we have to do is a little bit better in the time period,” he says. “We're not looking for great results. We're looking for improvement ... A 10th of one rating point amounts to a huge amount of money in that day part.”

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. His column appears Monday and Wednesday. Write: 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax: 768-8330.

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