What goes "chirp-chirp thud, chirp-chirp thud?"
An 800-pound canary or the "CBS Morning News."
A new edition of the dawn's-early-light broadcast premiered yesterday, with Charles Kuralt having departed, with admirable class, for a higher venerability, and the program substantially slicked up and revised. News reports now air with regularity on the half-hour (an almost inarguable improvement), former Chicago anchorman Bill Kurtis has joined Diane Sawyer behind Desko Uno, nebbishy Steve Deshler has replaced Gordon Barnes as weatherman, and sportscasts--a leg up on the competition, at least in strategy terms--have been tossed into the stew.
But a foggy pall hung over the proceedings yesterday, and it seemed more than just opening-day jitters. Perhaps it had to do with the Wagnerian humorlessness of Sawyer, who gives icy new meaning to the phrase "no-nonsense." America's newest Old Ironsides certainly took command of the program from Kurtis, a capable news reader who's in trouble when without a script. "We'll also be drawing a picture of the Depression with the first of a number of portraits," he promised at one point. Which Depression? The one three out-of-work women steelworkers say we're in now, we later learned--though what do you know, none of them called it a depression on camera.
Worse, producer George Merlis seemed hellbent on insinuating Kurtis and Sawyer into every cranny of the program, sometimes with embarrassing results. Correspondent Richard Wagner was to interview U.S. Ambassador Deane Hinton from El Salvador during the first half hour, but poor Wagner had to sit there twiddling while Sawyer pelted questions at Hinton from New York, failing to follow up on provocative remarks the feisty ambassador was making.
The interview was abruptly cut off by Kurtis, although the ambassador's voice could be heard beneath his as Kurtis introduced a station break.
Deshler can't do the weather, it seems, unless either Sawyer or Kurtis gets up from the desk, ambles over to the old map, and utters some insipid sort of prefatory remark--like Sawyer's "Steve, I understand the problems in the Midwest, but . . . " As the camera moves in for Deshler's forecast, Sawyer or Kurtis has to back out of the frame, which is not an easy thing to do with any sort of nonchalance. The "news" has come to this; they not only sing, they dance, too.
The show's stars do occupy handsome and spacious-looking new surroundings, although the sounds of an allegedly working newsroom, which is off to one side, are an affectation and a distraction on the air. If nothing else, though, the high-gloss look of the show ought to encourage NBC to put an overdue torch to its kitschy, busy "Today" show set, probably the worst "Today" show set in three decades.
"Headlines" are popped onto the screen now and then (on premiere day, floods in Fort Wayne went from first place to third by the end of the program), and viewers are kept apprised of the length of time until the next full newscast or weather report. Entertainment reporter Pat Collins also has been added to the cast, but she may be undone by the CBS News desire to have its mozzarella but call it brie; they want a gossip reporter who doesn't do anything so naughty as gossip. Thus Collins was stuck talking about Averell Harriman's patronage of a croquet team and the fact that buzzards are making their annual return to Hinckley, Ohio (look to your laurels, Liz Smith!).
Later, Collins did have a fairly decent report on the efforts to complete Natalie Wood's last movie without the late Miss Wood. This was marred by a technical fluff, a loss of picture and sound, which Collins and Sawyer pretended didn't happen. How much better it is to level with viewers and say "Oops, we goofed," but then, CBS News has never been known for its willingness to oop.
They shouldn't kid themselves at CBS News. What Merlis, former brainchild at ABC's "Good Morning America," has whipped up is merely a fancy and expensive national version of a local news-talk show. When NBC invented early morning television 30 years ago, the show was not a news program but an informal informational session with hard news inserts--essentially the kind of program "Good Morning America" is now. What CBS offers instead is a terribly compromised hard-news two hours that lacks intimacy on the one hand and the old CBS authority on the other. It's still an alternative to what the other networks present, but one could argue whether the alternative is, or ought to be, desired by a substantial number of viewers.
Kurtis, who seemed stiff and totally cowed by Sawyer, told viewers the revamped show represents "a brand new venture in the morning and, hopefully, a new way of imparting information to start your day." Charlie Kuralt would never have said anything so baldly promotional, and he would never, one hopes, have committed that common mis-use of "hopefully." But times do change, don't they, and not with a whimper or a bang, but more of a plotz.
According to ratings for the first nine weeks of 1982, the total network share of early morning viewers is off 12 percent from the same period last year. It isn't likely that the new "CBS Morning News" is going to send that 12 percent rushing pell-mell back to their television sets.