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For week ended October 24, 1999 Posted 14 Nov 1999

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Morning Becomes Bryant Gumbel

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 television.

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 Cigar Aficionado."

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."

Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 Kent Larsen · Privacy Information