Summarized by Eric Bunker
Morning Becomes Bryant Gumbel
New York Times Magazine 24Oct99 P2
By Bill Carter
CBS's "The Early Show," with Bryant Gumbel as the anchor, and a
relative newcomer, Jane Clayson, as the co-anchor will start on
Monday November 1. Steve Friedman, who was with Gumbel for two
stints as executive producer on NBC's "Today" Show, will serve in that
capacity. This show will serve as CBS's centerpiece in the network's
latest attempt to establish a respectable presence in morning
For CBS, the move has a simple logic. Morning TV, which is usually
geared more to a stay-at-home female audience, is the only time of
day when the networks are actually gaining audience, not losing it
like a slowly bleeding wound to cable TV competitors. CBS leased the
ground floor showroom space of the GM Building at Trump International
Plaza on 59th and Fifth New York City as a location for the now
requisite Manhattan tourist-site studio.
The "Today," show has dominated the ratings for five straight years
and is the most profitable network-owned property in television,
taking in a nice profit of $150 million-plus a year. With ABC's
morning program, "Good Morning, America," in limbo as its two hosts,
Diane Sawyer and Charles Gibson, are currently committed to only
staying until next spring, CBS had a rare chance to position itself
well in the morning market.
Gumbel is known for being a liberal hard-nosed news person that
exhibits a large degree of mater-of-fact coldness. It is clear that
he never has asked his audience to love him, just respect him. His
female co-hosts, most whom have been widely popular, seem to have
been used to take the hard edge off of Gumbel and the show.
Presumably, that's where Jane Clayson comes in.
As a 32-year-old former ABC correspondent, Clayson, a Mormon (no
coffee for this morning host) is outgoing and personable and has a
resume full of hard-news experience.
Clayson discounts questions about Gumbel's strained standing with
female viewers. "I think he's earned his respect with his work," she
says. "I've found him a warm, generous, caring guy. I'm very
comfortable with him."
As an interesting note, Clayson has been given the title co-anchor,
which immediately seems to put her in a subservient position to
Gumbel. Katie Couric, who was on NBC with Gumbel, was also labeled
as a co-host to his dominant anchor position, a point that rankled
her enough that when Matt Lauer came aboard she insisted they both be
co-hosts. Lauer calls that decision critical so that viewers would
not think "only one person had the keys to the car."
Despite all insider politics and the lateness of Clayson's
appointment after a protracted selection process that nominated her
less than two months before the program's start date, CBS executives
strongly deny that Clayson was anything like an afterthought. "If it
was an afterthought, we would have hired just anybody," says
Friedman, and not gone through a torturous evaluation.
Friedman comments that Clayson cannot be just anybody if CBS has any
hope of making "The Early Show" stick. "I firmly believe the woman
is the key to the success of these shows," the longtime production
executive says. "It has been Jane Pauley, Joan Lunden and then Katie
Couric; they have driven these shows. Matt has become an essential
player on 'Today,' but he doesn't drive it. Bryant didn't drive it.
The woman is the one who shows up on magazine covers. It's Ladies
Home Journal and Good Housekeeping that you need to appeal to, not
Gumbel plans to have "The Early Show" distinguish itself by being
more aggressive, perhaps maybe even defying the odds and aiming for a
more male-oriented format, with a greater emphasis on sports, while
hitting "Today" in what they see as its frivolous underbelly."
Friedman says the biggest opportunity for his show may come in the
very absence of the soft and cuddly style that Gumbel disdains.
"Morning television has no edge," Friedman says. "No excitement.
What Bryant brings to morning television is edge."