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'CBS This Morning' works to catch 'GMA,' 'Today'

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By Meredith Blake
Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

It's not quite 8 a.m. on a Monday morning, and in a dark control room on West 57th Street, Chris Licht, executive producer of “CBS This Morning,” has already been up for nearly four hours. It's the day after the Golden Globes, and both NBC's “Today” and ABC's “Good Morning America” lead with segments about the awards show; “CBS This Morning” opts for a report on the flu epidemic.

As the first hour of the broadcast — which includes a conversation about a proposed assault weapons ban and a Scott Pelley interview with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor — winds down, Licht glances at the TV screens overhead to check in on the competition. In the middle of a Segway tour of Venice Beach, Matt Lauer is, for some reason, getting a fake tattoo of the “Today” logo on his forearm.

“Charlie Rose would never get a tattoo,” he says with a sneer.

For Licht, this distinction is a point of pride, but it also hints at the difficulties facing “CBS This Morning,” which launched in January 2012 with the ambitious goal of providing “a more thoughtful, substantive and insightful” alternative in morning television. Thirteen months later, “CBS This Morning” remains a distant third behind “Today” and “Good Morning America,” averaging about 2.65 million viewers when it airs from 7 to 9 a.m. weekdays.

But the show is up an impressive 20 percent in total viewers compared with the same time last year and is performing particularly well in Los Angeles, where it's up about 60 percent in total households — no small feat, given how entrenched morning TV habits tend to be.

“Will it ever be at the level the ‘Today' show was forever? Probably not,” said Bill Carroll, an analyst at Katz Television Group. “But if the audience is growing, that's a good thing.”

The last 12 months have seen much turmoil in morning TV, a lucrative category that brings the networks close to a billion dollars a year in advertising revenue, according to Jon Swallen, senior vice president for research at Kantar Media.

The tumult began in April when “Good Morning America” beat “Today” in the ratings for the first time in 17 years and further escalated in late June with Ann Curry's tearful, highly public ouster from NBC's once-indestructible morning franchise. The decision backfired: Many viewers seemed put off by the Curry debacle and decided to change the channel.

Although “Good Morning America” now regularly beats “Today” by a half-million viewers, it, too, has been roiled by instability. Anchor Robin Roberts took a leave of absence in August to undergo a bone marrow transplant, and since then the show has closely followed — some would say exploited — her personal health struggles.

The battle is spilling over to cable television, with former “Today” executive producer Jeff Zucker poaching “GMA” veteran Chris Cuomo to co-host a new morning show set to launch this spring on CNN. It will replace the barely year-old “Starting Point With Soledad O'Brien.”

Despite (or perhaps because of) the venerable reputation of CBS News — home to Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow and “60 Minutes” — the network has never been completely at ease in the chipper world of breakfast television. It made its first attempt at the genre in 1954 with “The Morning Show,” hosted by Cronkite and a lion puppet named Charlemagne. That failed, as did at least a half-dozen other attempts over the last five decades. Most recent was “The Early Show,” which aired from 1999 to 2012 and cycled through numerous hosts including Bryant Gumbel, Julie Chen, Harry Smith, Chris Wragge and Erica Hill.

“We're not good at cooking, we don't put on a good concert. I think maybe for too long we tried to be something that we're not, and it wasn't working,” says David Rhodes, president of CBS News.

Enter Licht, the mastermind behind MSNBC's buzzy “Morning Joe,” hired in May 2011 with a mandate to improve the network's standing in the morning. Five months later, CBS announced plans for a program to be hosted by Gayle King, known to millions as Oprah's best friend, PBS fixture Charlie Rose and Hill, the lone holdout from “The Early Show.”

With strong support from Les Moonves and other top brass at CBS, Licht dispensed with many of the presumed orthodoxies of the morning talk format: “CBS This Morning” has no weather person, no cooking segments, and no outdoor plaza where fans from Topeka eagerly wave homemade signs. The show's major innovation is the “Eye Opener,” a 90-second highlight reel of the day's major stories that opens the top of each hour.

Cronkite's legacy quite literally looms over the broadcast: The world map that hung behind the legendary anchorman on “The CBS Evening News” now adorns the set.

“We produce the show as if we're the only morning show on TV,” Licht says. “We don't do anything because the other guys do it, and we don't not do anything because the other guys do it.”

With “Today” and “GMA” locked in an often tabloid-y, two-way death match — epitomized by the gimmicky face-off in April between guest hosts Sarah Palin and Katie Couric, respectively — “CBS This Morning” has quietly established itself as a destination for newsmakers not found in the pages of Us Weekly.

In what is probably its biggest “get,” Colin Powell endorsed President Obama for a second time on “CBS This Morning” last fall. King's close ties to Winfrey have also come in handy: In January the daytime queen confirmed on “CBS This Morning” that Lance Armstrong had confessed to doping during their much-hyped interview.

Less tangibly but no less critically, “CBS This Morning” has also avoided becoming what Licht calls “a cult of personality” program — one where the hosts become the story. “That's why you wouldn't see a ‘Charlie-and-Gayle-try-this' segment,” he says.

Not that chemistry isn't important: In July, Hill was quietly replaced by White House correspondent Norah O'Donnell, a tenacious but cool-headed interviewer who has burnished the show's hard-news credentials.

Meredith Blake is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.

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