Making Their Moves
ABC and CBS, also-rans in the morning TV battle for the last four years, take aim at NBC's reigning champion, "Today."
By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (firstname.lastname@example.org), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.
"IF I'M GOING to war," Steve Friedman says, "I can think of no one better than Bryant to be there.... I hope he feels the same way about me."
Bryant--Gumbel, that is--is Friedman's main weapon in the simmering fight for morning television viewers. The longtime friends and colleagues know how this battle works. It's possible Friedman pronounced a similar cry in the early '80s when he was executive producer of NBC's "Today," Gumbel its cohost and the show a No. 2 in the ratings to ABC's "Good Morning America."
Now the duo has taken up arms for CBS, the perpetual basement-dweller of network morning ratings, a virtual nonfactor in the contest--until now. With millions of CBS dollars behind the project, Friedman is leading the troops, striding toward the battlefield with a smile on his face.
Morning television has always been important; press accounts of the "morning wars" and anchors' personalities and behind-the-scenes interactions have been making news for decades. But this year, after watching NBC's "Today" float by on an unprecedented four-year ride at No. 1, the other two networks are stepping up their a.m. investments, building bigger, better and "Today"-like studios, and featuring high-priced talent. "Today's" Katie Couric and Matt Lauer are wooing about 2 million more viewers than ABC's "Good Morning America"--which reverted to the tried-and-true Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer this year--and almost 3 million more than CBS' "This Morning"--which semi-shocked the world by tapping Gumbel in May to be the new anchor. (It first hired Friedman as senior executive producer.)
Sawyer, who once hosted CBS' program in the '80s, and Gibson began broadcasting for ABC out of a glitzy, discoesque studio overlooking Times Square in September, while CBS has drawn up a completely different slate. Friedman, Gumbel and the new-to-the-morning-grind Jane Clayson as coanchor round out the brand new "Early Show" ("This Morning's" successor). As of November 1, they're broadcasting from "Studio 58," a high-tech, extravagant home at Trump International Plaza, across from Central Park. And, yes, both networks have plenty of space for outdoor crowds.
All the hype, battle cries and suspenseful anchor searches have garnered ample press attention. But will these initiatives attract a larger share of the morning audience? Or even a healthy crop of New York City tourists? What exactly do the early risers want in a.m. TV, and what do the networks want to give them? As it all moves closer to same-old, same-old cloning, how can one program be any better than another?
Each network show's version of news, weather, entertainment and the tourist factor is routinely watched, listened to or ignored by legions of viewers as they eat breakfast, brush their teeth, and locate matching socks. An average 10.8 million American households, out of the 99.4 million with televisions, tuned in to a network morning show daily in the 1998-99 television season, according to Nielsen Media Research. That audience, demographically attractive to advertisers, is growing, producing a lucrative time slot. In the 1994-95 TV season, an average 10.5 million households watched a network morning show.
Morning is the only part of the day in which network television audiences are on the increase, say TV executives. In prime-time hours, for example, the networks have lost viewers since 1995, according to Nielsen statistics compiled by Katz Programming. Other time slots are stagnant at best. More people are getting up earlier--read "going to bed before the nightly news"--and catching the headlines in the morning. All three network shows air from 7 to 9 a.m. in all time zones, though CBS just made the switch from an 8-to-9-a.m. broadcast with the advent of its new show.
"It's becoming more important economically," says Friedman. Plus, he adds, "in TV, it's the way you start your day.... You don't want to start behind the other guys."
The promotional opportunity for other network programs is key as well, Friedman notes. If you catch the last seconds of the news updates on any of the network programs, you'll probably know what's coming up on their prime-time newsmagazine shows. And maybe, the hope goes, you'll tune in later.
Local television stations aren't blind to the potential dollars either. The audience for local news shows that precede the network programs is also growing, says Jim Willi, president of Audience Research & Development, a media research and consulting firm based in Dallas. "People are getting up much earlier in the morning," he says, adding that with local news, it's usually whichever station takes to the airwaves first that gets the audience. Those morning viewers watch with much more regularity than nighttime news consumers, Willi says. It's part of their a.m. routines.
In the late '70s and early '80s, says Joe Angotti, a former senior vice president of NBC News, local stations began dropping the network's "Sunrise" program, which ran before 7 a.m., in favor of their own programming. "That's some indication," says Angotti, now chair of the broadcast program at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, "of how that time period in the early morning news hours [is] capable of making quite a bit of money."
Simple math shows how the dollars can add up: There are more advertising spots bringing in revenue in a two- or three-hour morning show than there are in a half-hour news program. And, says Willi, a longer program doesn't translate into much higher expenses; personnel costs are going to be the same.
S O WITH GOOD dollar-sign reason, the morning battlefield is changing; it's getting hotter, and its terrain is growing more homogenous. While feature segments and contributors add a distinct flavor to each program, all three networks carry much the same headlines. What all three didn't have until this fall was prime real estate.
"Today's" top-dog status began around the time it developed windowed, street-level studios, replete with a daily crowd of spectators, that reprised the program's 1950s set. That was June 1994, during Friedman's second stint as "Today" producer. (He worked on the show from '79 to '87 and from '93 to '95.) Coincidence in rising ratings or no, ABC and CBS have decided this is an idea worth stealing--Friedman says it's about time they woke up and smelled NBC's coffee.
"Where the hell were these other [networks] that gave the ‘Today' show tens of millions of dollars over the last six years?" Friedman asks. He first says the new studio may not push CBS ahead, but "it's going to negate the advantage ‘Today' has." He adds, though, that "The Early Show" does have at least part of the upper hand since Studio 58 sits on the edge of Central Park, a vivid symbol of New York City for most Americans.
"The Early Show's" digs, which reportedly cost between $20 million and $30 million, include a full kitchen and dumbwaiter for cooking segments by the likes of contributor Martha Stewart. Large windows make it all visible to spectators in the spacious outdoor plaza; five kiosks along East 59th Street provide access to CBS Web properties; and cameras mounted in various outside locations provide shots of Central Park, Fifth Avenue and even New Jersey. Glass panels set between the main anchor location and the exterior windows can be made opaque to provide privacy during sensitive interviews.
"Early Show" press representative Kelli Edwards says Friedman is fond of saying, "We've already won the real-estate war."
It certainly is an impressive, massive undertaking--as is the new "GMA" studio, with its Broadway-style faćade of thick, wavy strips of bright lights. The program airs for passersby on a giant screen mounted outside. The second-level main studio gives a view of the city behind anchors Gibson and Sawyer, while downstairs, "GMA" has a more relaxed interview area, furnished with newsstand racks and stools. A crowd gathers on the sidewalk and spends some time chatting with weatherman Tony Perkins, perhaps a "GMA" guest and toward the end of the show, Gibson and Sawyer.
Despite the similarities to the tourist-attracting studios of "Today," "GMA" Executive Producer Shelley Ross says there's no copycat effect happening here. "It's such not an integral part," she says, adding that "GMA" is very different in its use of the crowd. "We're more than the, ‘Hi Mom, hi Dad,' ‘Where are you from?' " Ross says. She cites an example: In late September, "GMA" mentioned a study that showed a growing number of employees are taking days off because of stress. Perkins went out and chatted with folks about the study and asked how many were supposed to be at work right then. About half raised their hands.
Ross says with the new location, the show does feel "more connected with people." And Friedman says there's a "vitality" projected to the audience along with a sense "of being there."
TV may be a derivative medium, taking whatever works and running with it, but isn't there a chance viewers will get bored? "Today" Executive Producer Jeff Zucker acknowledges the danger exists, but says, "it's now up to us to come up with the next exciting change in morning television."
Success will depend on how the shows integrate the crowd factor, says AR&D's Willi. If viewers perceive a show as just doing the same thing as its competitors, it won't work. A program has "to take it to the next level," he says.
By 7 a.m. on the Friday of Labor Day weekend, about 200 or so fresh-faced and enthusiastic folks were gathered outside the "Today" studios in Rockefeller Center--30 Rock, as it's known. Resembling a small, subdued sporting-event crowd, many held signs--such as the comical "Where in the world was Matt Lauer...when I was single?" playing off a segment in which Lauer would broadcast from a surprise location each day for a week. And one woman wore a bridal veil. An informal poll of about 30 of the spectators produced extremely varied answers as to why they were there: from quite a few "we really like Katie and Matt" responses to "our hotel is close by" to "it's fun, it's free, and maybe we'll be on TV." Some watched "Today," some didn't. The live performance of Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris was the only reason a few people made the early morning commitment that day.
Adding to the amusement-park atmosphere, the incredible edible egg mascot of the American Egg Board, sponsor of "Today's" concert series, had appeared earlier to get its picture taken with the crowd, and if anyone was so inclined, the NBC Disney Store-like souvenir shop across the street offered $12 "Today" coffee mugs, $20 baseball hats and just about anything else you could imagine.
Friedman says these outdoor settings are great for word-of-mouth advertising. Attendees will go home and tell their friends about the experience and how nice the hosts were. "You get 'em one by one," he says.
Some industry watchers think little of the if-you-build-it-they-will-come phenomenon. "It doesn't seem like there's a lot of creativity going on in television," says Don Fitzpatrick, owner and president of Don Fitzpatrick Associates in San Francisco, a TV talent and management placement firm. "It's just a gimmick," he says, one he doesn't think will win viewers.
Marvin Kitman of New York's Newsday wrote a fairly scathing column May 10 on Gumbel and Friedman's a.m. return, lamenting imitation TV: "By hiring a former ‘Today' coanchor, the ex-‘Today' producer and adopting the ‘Today' studio open window policy, the CBS strategy is clear. Some people waking up in the morning and groggily turning on their sets will think they are watching ‘Today' on CBS. Why don't they just change the name of the show to ‘CBS Today,' which will further confuse viewers and give the network an instant spike in the ratings?"
O F COURSE, ANY publicity could be good publicity, and Friedman would never be one to hide the fact he wants to promote the show. "I do manipulate the press, and they manipulate me," he says, adding that if he's not excited about the show, how can anyone else be?
His personality is all energy as he talks of CBS' offensive. Press accounts have mentioned that he has a temper, and many reports tell of his propensity to hold a baseball bat while talking to people, reinforcing a tough-guy image. He only lightly tossed a baseball while talking to me, which was not intimidating in the least, though at times I felt I was being recruited: At the end of the interview, he fervently sent me off with a "Go get 'em."
But Friedman hasn't had to put much effort into getting publicity for CBS. The name Bryant Gumbel attracted plenty of attention, and whoever dubbed CBS' search for a coanchor Operation Glass Slipper--Friedman says it was CBS Television CEO Leslie Moonves or CBS News President Andrew Heyward--was a PR person's godsend. There was enough cliché and pun fodder in that title for the media to speculate for months on end. The New York tabloids especially kept the guessing game going, fueled by rumors, including one that Dana Reeve, actress and wife of Christopher Reeve, was a possibility. Even the press that mocked the saga contributed to the hype. The Washington Post's Lisa de Moraes had CBS' "knights of the News" scouring "the kingdom" for the "Cinderella" who would sit by "Prince Gumbel" when he "takes the throne."
But choosing the right anchors is not easy. Personality, anyone in the morning TV business will say, is extremely important. Viewers might want news and weather, but they also want a family friend, a companion, someone to make them feel good in the morning. And the job isn't easy.
"It's two hours of live television, and anything that breaks anywhere in the world is going to be your territory," says former CBS "This Morning" cohost Jane Robelot. "That's a part of the pressure that's always in the back of your mind." Plus, you have to be versatile. "There's harder news...then you're baking cookies with Martha Stewart," she says.
Robelot anchored "This Morning" for three years before CBS decided not to renew her contract due to the launch of "The Early Show." She left in June and now anchors the news for WGNX in Atlanta. Robelot also cites variety and unpredictability as what she liked about morning TV. The schedule isn't as enjoyable. "It physically hurts to have to get up at those hours," she says.
In the last two years, "GMA" shuffled anchors three times: The show lost Joan Lunden and brought in the younger and unknown Lisa McRee, previously an anchor for a Los Angeles station. Soon, Charles Gibson stepped down in favor of the also younger Kevin Newman, the program's former news reader. McRee and Newman didn't entice viewers either, and "GMA" asked the big names to give the show a boost.
Earlier reports described Sawyer and Gibson as temporarily filling in. But Ross says they've committed to the program through May, and that doesn't mean they won't stay on longer. However, "GMA" is "looking for new talent to bubble up" and develop, she says.
A few days before CBS picked Jane Clayson, formerly an ABC "World News Tonight" correspondent based in Los Angeles, Friedman said he had looked at more than 400 tapes and interviewed more than 100 people. Moonves had said CBS' coanchor would probably be a new face for most of America, and Clayson fills the bill. Despite the plethora of well-known morning personalities, some relative unknowns have done quite well. Katie Couric, for instance, jumped quickly from local news to covering the Pentagon and White House for NBC to "Today."
Talent is the first thing NBC's Zucker talks about when asked why the "Today" show has been successful. "Obviously Bryant and Katie [were] a tremendous team," he says, "and Katie and Matt have proved to be the best team ever." Gumbel cohosted "Today" for a whopping 15 years before trying his hand at prime-time with CBS in 1997. (His "Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel" was canceled after one season.)
So what's the secret for choosing morning talent? "If we knew what the answer to that question was, then obviously everyone would be doing it," Zucker says. "It's really hard.... Part of it is luck."
Deborah Norville, who coanchored "Today" with Gumbel in 1990 and '91 and is now the anchor of the syndicated "Inside Edition," says "people watch people they like." Since everyone working on morning programs is well qualified, she says, it comes down to whatever visceral reasons viewers have for liking certain anchors. She equates a viewer's decision to choosing from one of two park benches that already have someone sitting on each of them. Why do you gravitate toward one person over another? Who knows?
CBS has opted for a proven crowd-pleaser in Gumbel. Can the former "Today" star alone draw more viewers to CBS? "I think it will certainly improve that program," says Zucker.
One obstacle CBS faces is airing the new show for a full two hours in all, or at least most, markets. When CBS cut back its morning show to just one hour--8 to 9 a.m.--in 1996, many affiliates poured their energies and money into developing morning programs that would last until the network show aired. Now, CBS must sway stations with top-notch local shows to give that 7-to-8-a.m. time slot back. Friedman said in September, "the reception has been quite strong," but declined to give exact numbers because of ongoing negotiations. He promised the percentage of affiliates airing the full "Early Show" would be "overwhelmingly in our favor." As of early October, affiliates in 18 out of the 20 top markets had signed on.
TV talent coordinator Fitzpatrick says "there's not a lot of incentive" for local stations with money- and ratings-making morning shows to switch to the network's program. "Unless CBS can kind of convince them that Bryant Gumbel is somehow the second coming, and he's not," he says.
Indianapolis' WISH-TV was still negotiating with CBS in late September, but within a few weeks decided to give the 7 a.m. hour back to the network. Its morning lineup of local news shows now runs from 5 to 7 a.m. "We have invested manpower and time and effort in building our own product and people," WISH Vice President and News Director Lee Giles said while negotiations were in progress. The station's ratings were "substantially better than they were with CBS before," falling in at No. 2, behind "Today." But, Giles said, the advantage to bowing to the network is that the affiliate and CBS are a partnership, and "we do our best to share and work with each other."
After much thought, says Loren Tobia, news director at WTVH-TV in Syracuse, his station decided it would give back the hour, cutting its local program to the two hours before 7 a.m. "We think it's in the interest of both our station and the network that the program be given a chance" across the nation, he says. But Boots Walker, director of sales and marketing at KENS in San Antonio, says absolutely no. The station's 5-to-8-a.m. program is No. 1 locally and has even beaten "Today" at times, though the audience falls off some the closer it gets to 7 a.m. Could anything happen to make KENS change its mind? "I don't think so at this time," Walker says. "Unless we simply fell way out of bed in our ratings."
C BS AND ABC are fighting a program whose hosts are recognizable by first names only, "Katie and Matt." "I think they're consistent," says Willi about what has put "Today" ahead. "They make it fun, they make it smart.... It has a nice mix of personalities.... The content is right on target." And, he stresses, the competition has been "unsettled." ###
Friedman doesn't dispute that "Today" has done it right and "This Morning" has been amiss. "There's only one morning show that's appropriate for now...that's ‘Today,' " he says, explaining that whatever mix the show chooses to present is appropriate for that particular day. Meanwhile, CBS' "This Morning" has been playing catch-up and attempting to beat shows that already have been on the air for an hour when it starts, he says.
At 7:02, "Today" and "Good Morning America" have switched quickly from anchor intros to the news desk, transmitting basically the same top stories for five to six minutes before going to their respective gregarious weather guys. Prior to the "Early Show" debut, most CBS affiliates were still airing local news programs in that hour, though in some markets, such as Los Angeles, two hours of "This Morning" were broadcast.
With NBC, viewers are treated to a full 22 minutes of news, weather and information at the top of this first hour before a commercial break. "Today's" Zucker calls it "the fastest and newsiest 22 minutes of television on the air." "GMA" gives you at least 19 minutes before switching to the ads.
"Today" goes to the news desk two more times in the two hours, though the rest of the content gets softer and more featurey as time passes, often culminating in a segment shot outdoors. It's a formula generally followed by the other networks and an easy target of criticism for anyone decrying the entertainment/news blur of the media. Last year, at an AJR conference sponsored by the Ford Foundation, one participant representing the public remarked to another: "The problem is that you accept the definition of the ‘Today' show as news, because it isn't. It's entertainment."
But the morning show execs and industry consultants interviewed for this article aren't clamoring for a strictly hard news program--something CBS tried in the morning in the early '80s, only to remain No. 3 in the ratings.
"GMA's" Ross says when the show was transferred from ABC's entertainment division to its news division in 1995, some friction initially resulted, the news side feeling that the morning show was frivolous. Her response: "Hey, I love fluff, but we can report smart fluff." Ross equates an a.m. show with an a.m. paper. You read the front page, the national news, she says, and "then it's OK to go to the lifestyle section" or sports, and eventually the comics.
Former NBC exec Angotti can't believe he's saying this, but he thinks "we're getting close to the point where there's too much news on television," particularly with three all-news cable networks. "The safe alternative for the networks, who...need to reach a critical mass, is to have a proper mix of news and entertainment."
Besides, most consultant types would say people need and want some soft stuff when they wake up. Franklin Graham, president of Convergent Communications Consultants, says viewers going to work want "information that quickly brings them up to date"--news, traffic and weather. Then, viewers look for "a program that is comfortable and somewhat entertaining to watch." Those who will remain at home, he says, want all of that plus "companionship."
A random content example: At 7:35 a.m. on September 20, "Good Morning America" is airing a taped segment of Sawyer interviewing rock 'n' roller Meat Loaf about his autobiography, and "Today's" Couric is in the middle of a discussion with NBC Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert on Pat Buchanan, Donald Trump and Warren Beatty. At 8:44, Lauer is talking to Alexandra Stevenson, the tennis player and daughter of Julius Erving, while on "GMA," Gibson is wrapping up an interview with the new Miss America, Heather French. "This Morning" had just finished a "Parental Guidance" segment on helping your child with homework and is previewing a segment on maternity fashions to air after a commercial break.
Ross says what "GMA" is really about is strong content, though it's hard to tell if a recent boost in ratings resulted from the new studios or the journalism the show aired.
Friedman isn't out to "reinvent the wheel" as far as the typical morning fare goes, but he hopes to add more "cutting edge" material and more "attitude" to CBS' show. He uses as an example new "Early Show" parenting correspondents Martha Quinn, an original MTV VJ, and Lisa Birnbach, author of "The Official Preppy Handbook." Quinn and Birnbach will report on their experiences in a regular segment called "Yikes, I've Grown Up," a departure from "these quote, unquote the experts telling you what to do," Friedman says.
Then there's that fickleness of TV viewers, armed with remotes and with endless channels to choose from. Friedman says given the cyclical nature of television, viewers might start looking to CBS, which has yet to benefit from such theories in the morning. Usually TV shows are on top for only five or six years, he says, and then people turn to something new.
Angotti says he "couldn't agree more" about cycles. "That happens to everybody," he says, including prime-time shows like "MASH." "It'll happen to the ‘Today' show," he adds, emphasizing that though Couric and Lauer will probably carry the blame, it's not as if they will have done something wrong. "The fact of the matter is, people will switch away for the same reason they switched away from...any successful program...because the program and/or the people appearing on the program became tiresome for one reason or another."
But AR&D's Willi doesn't buy that notion. "I think that audiences get tired if the show does not evolve with their needs," he says, not just because it's about time someone else was No. 1.
Ross admits "GMA" may have gotten a little old before anyone realized it. But that doesn't mean you have to tear up a program and start over. "Things do get stale," she says, "but you can take great traditions" and make them work. Ross was given complete freedom to remake the show, change the format, even rename it. But "after a lot of thought," she says, "I wanted to watch ‘Good Morning America' every morning--the new and improved version."
"It's very hard to stay on top day in and day out," says Zucker, whose network is trying to capitalize on "Today's" success with "Later Today," a news/talk show airing from 9 to 10 a.m. in most markets. "When you are on top, you have a tendency to become complacent and just revel in your position." The advantage for "Today," he says, is that Couric, Lauer, news reader Ann Curry and weatherman Al Roker are still "fresh" and the show is being prodded by heated competition. "That's a bonus for us," he says.
Friedman says CBS has never been so "financially and spiritually behind a project," and the vigor will certainly make the morning hours interesting. How concerned is NBC's Zucker about the push from No. 2 and No. 3? "I'm not concerned," he says. "I'm excited."