It is a potted-fern jungle, a forest of egos, an arboretum of temper tantra, and a garden of blossoming revenues. It is the world of morning network television, once a quiet kingdom which one network called its own, now a hotbed time period in which all three networks battle like hungry hounds over an audience of only around 16 million viewers, most of whom give their full attention to the programs for no more than seven minutes at a stretch.
Today, the hotbed heats up anew. After months of delay, CBS introduces yet another remodeled version of "The CBS Morning News," with a new set, new theme music, new animated graphics (a la "Entertainment Tonight"), new ferns, and a new cohost: Phyllis George, imported from the sports department to help nudge the network morning show out of a humiliating, and impoverished, third place.
Meanwhile, the grandperson of morning shows, NBC's "Today," this morning celebrates its 33rd anniversary as an American institution on what the producers think will be a turning point toward Nielsen nirvana. For the first time in three years, the producers of "Today" think they have a chance at overtaking ABC's long-dominant "Good Morning America" for first place in the morning ratings. Nielsen numbers for the fourth quarter of 1984 show "Today" having narrowed the gap from five share points in 1983 to only three. NBC proudly notes that for the fourth quarter, traditionally the most important in the TV year, "GMA" suffered its lowest quarterly share average in six years.
But at the ABC television network, where most of the latest ratings news has been bad, a solid front maintains that "Good Morning America" remains unchallenged in its dominance and dutifully denies rumors that host David Hartman has been noticeably incensed by the slippage. The show's executive producer does admit, however, that last week she warned all those who book guests for the program, "Remember, Phyllis George will be starting next week."
It's not a whole new ball game. It's the old ball game with a new and more glitterized starting lineup and the stakes raised another daunting notch.
In television, the politics of morning are the economics of morning. NBC, and its affiliates, may earn profits of $20 million or more each year from the "Today" show alone; the morning shows are particularly dear to affiliates because through a complex commercial-time-sharing arrangement, they earn a greater share of the profits than from regular network programs. For this latest new escalation of the morning wars, money is flowing like syrup over flapjacks.
CBS News executives, in fact, made a pilgrimage to Black Rock, the sometimes impregnable corporate fortress, to request $2 million in overhaul funds for the "Morning News" show and "We got everything we asked for," a news executive says. That $2 million includes roughly $600,000 for the new set, a handsome mid-tech gleamer that could be a war room on the planet of the chic. They might as well call it the Good Ship Phyllis, though, since virtually all the changes in the new program revolve around the much heralded arrival of her.
Jon Katz, the executive producer of the program, sounds happy with the set. "There's a fair amount of plants which are all live," he boasts. "No artificial plants."
The $2 million includes the all-live plants but does not include George's salary, at least $750,000 a year with escalators that bring her to $1.2 million in her third year. Cracking a million bucks was "a point of honor" for George's agent, the swashbuckling Ed Hookstratten, according to a CBS source. George also got lavish allowances for agreeing to live in Manhattan, and a flush of perks. But even at $1.2 million, she will not be the morning's highest-paid star. That honor goes to ABC's David Hartman, who reportedly takes home in excess of $1.5 million annually. One NBC rascal says Hartman's annual FICA deduction is paid off in his very first paycheck each year.
In all of network news, only Tom Brokaw makes more money than Hartman.
Hookstratten is also the agent for Bryant Gumbel, the ingenuous cohost of "Today," whose contract ran out in December, who apparently has rebuffed the wooings of ABC's ubiquitously solicitous Roone Arledge, but who will not sign again with NBC until a sufficiently handsome figure is dangled in front of him. Jane Pauley, Gumbel's partner on the show, reportedly makes around $650,000. Bill Kurtis of the "CBS Morning News" took a pay cut from the $800,000 he made as Chicago's top anchorman to sign on at CBS for a figure somewhere in the mid-700s.
Fabulous concessions made George are deemed eminently Worth It at CBS News, where it is widely assumed that this try at salvaging the "Morning News" could well be the last; that the network will get tired of the trouble and hand the show over to the entertainment department ("Good Morning America" is produced by ABC Entertainment, with news segments supplied by ABC News, but both NBC's and CBS's shows are entirely under news department domain). Kurtis himself says, "If our experiment here fails, maybe the direction CBS should take is that entertainer direction. I see this as a final, or one of the last, attempts to let the news division carry it."
Executive producer Katz disagrees. "I've never had a whiff that this is the last time around for the 'Morning News,' " Katz says. "We may be in third place, but more people are watching than ever watched it before about 4 million . I don't think the company views that as a failure. What we want to do now is move to another plateau and become more competitive."
Kurtis and Katz disagree on another matter. The role of Phyllis George. It had been said that after Diane Sawyer left for "60 Minutes," Kurtis was hoping Jane Wallace or one of the other less experienced on-air auditioners would get Sawyer's job; that would allow Kurtis to dominate the show, not be relegated to a sidekick role. Of all those anchoring network morning programs, Kurtis is the only bona fide journalist. George got the job, but Kurtis says it was agreed up front that he would handle all the hard news.
"There will be a separation between us," Kurtis says. "That doesn't mean Phyllis will be relegated to bird-feeder segments, just women and children; she'll also be doing interviews. But she won't be doing hard news. There's a clear division right off the bat."
However, Katz says, "She's not going to be shut out from ever doing any news, no." Of the separation between the two anchors, Katz says, "There are some areas where it's fuzzy. Phyllis will not do the news blocks. Certainly for a while she will not be doing plane crashes, assassinations, that sort of thing. Her role is that of an interviewer. She will bring enthusiasm, knowledge and energy to the show." The Chitchat Factor
Defining hard news and soft news gets harder in television. Sometimes "The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather" goes to features 10 minutes into the show. Once, CBS had what was considered the hardest, least fluffy of the three morning network shows, but no more. Producers at all three shows now generally agree that all three are pretty much the same. It will all boil down to what most competition in television all boils down to, personalities. George is considered to have a homey, even maternal warmth that the bright and crisp Sawyer did not have.
Certainly George never misses an opportunity to drag her husband, children and home into discussions on the program. Sawyer looked uncomfortable with the hostessy, chit-chatty functions of the anchor; George, to the other extreme, looks as comfortable as Perle Mesta tossing a party.
Although some within the news division ridicule him as unsophisticated, Kurtis has the same midwestern naturalness and openness that make Hartman successful. Yet Kurtis has not been treated royally by the network. For a time, Kurtis even had to drive himself to work at 4 o'clock in the morning; now CBS sends a cab for him. Trudging gamely with George through rehearsals all five days last week, Kurtis paused at one point to say, "I'm surprised I feel as good as I do" and "Here I am, making the best of it."
Looking ahead to the new format being unveiled this week, Kurtis said, "I was dreading it, frankly. But now that I've gone through it a couple of times in rehearsals, I find there's a nice feeling to it, even -- I'm surprised -- an element of class to it." But Kurtis is still smarting about the way he learned who his costar would be. "CBS announced she was coming and I didn't even get a phone call. Maybe they wanted to avoid an argument. But you just don't do that."
Katz says "that was a communications slip-up" and predicts Kurtis will emerge over the next six months as "one of the most underestimated people on television." The re-formatting of the show means naturally that individual segments will tend to get shorter. New contributors will be added to liven it up, not all of them surfacing right away. "The dust is not going to settle around here until this summer," Katz says and, always angered when the topic turns to softening the show -- with the hiring of George cited as Exhibit A -- Katz growls, "It's crazy to prejudge this broadcast or her."
Who will be whose sidekick now on the "Morning News"? Katz does not want to say. "It's a different structure," he says. He is asked who, then, will be the first to say "good morning" each day. Will it be Kurtis? "Well, he'll certainly have to say 'Good Morning' first on the first day so that he can introduce Phyllis," Katz says. It does begin to sound like "The Phyllis George Show." 'Today' on the Offensive -------
At the "Today" show, Steve Friedman, bouncingly boyish executive producer, claims to be so keen on the possibility of at last beating "GMA" that he is not worried about George's potential for luring viewers away from him. "If Phyllis George does well the first week it doesn't mean anything, and if she does poorly the first week it doesn't mean anything. I'm not going to jump off the roof if she does well," he promises.
"We're really coming on," Friedman says of his show. "We've had tremendous change in the ratings this year. We're closer now than we've been since Brokaw left." Tom Brokaw left three years ago to do the "NBC Nightly News." The ratings sank. Even the "CBS Morning News" experienced a few months of passable ratings while viewers searched the dials. Then "we just went flat," Kurtis recalls. Now the "Morning News" is back down, "GMA" is declining, and "Today" has surged. Friedman thinks it's because he does the best show, but he admits there are other factors.
One is that ABC's ratings in prime time have plummeted while NBC's have spurted up. With more TV dials left on an NBC station when the set goes off at night, more are set to an NBC station when the set goes on in the morning. "ABC is having severe problems. If they continue, they will help us beat 'Good Morning America,' " Friedman says.
Friedman also thinks "Today" presents an engaging extended family that millions of yawning Americans can adopt as a comfy supplement to their own households. Gumbel's and Pauley's supporting cast is the best in morning TV. Willard Scott lends a certain daft dignity to the peculiarly American ritual of clowning the weather; baldly blunt about the fact that he wears a toupee, he went through four hairpiece changes on one recent show as he stood before his happy map. Gene Shalit, the entertainment reporter and critic, may be silly, but compared with boobish Joel Siegel on ABC and dimly lit Pat Collins on CBS, he is George Bernard Shaw.
"GMA" is in a state of decline, Friedman thinks, because Hartman so unyieldingly dominates the program. "David is on so much, viewers get (National Caucus of Labor Committees photo) you don't like 'GMA.' He's on 80 percent of the time. People are getting sick of him." Hartman's female cohost (currently Joan Lunden) has always been so expendably anonymous that "Today" show wags refer to her as "the lamp." They also enjoy repeating tales of Hartman's alleged hamminess and temper flareups, a recent one supposedly ignited when Hartman read in USA Today that "GMA's" Nielsen happy days were going sad.
"David Hartman is not a terror. David Hartman is not a horror," testifies Phyllis McGrady, recently promoted at "GMA" from line producer to executive producer. "He is not all the things these rumors say he is. David is a professional. I don't know who starts these stories -- 'David calls up screaming about ratings.' They're absolutely untrue. He just doesn't have that much participation in the show. He is definitely the star, he has a huge attraction, but he does not call the shots."
Could Hartman get her fired if he felt like it? "I don't know if he could. I suppose if I started doing obnoxious things . . . I'm not so sure I could get him fired, either." Is Hartman furious about the ratings drop? "If he is, he's never expressed that to me, and we talk a lot."
The competitors laugh at the way Hartman imposes himself on news guests and wades into interviews far beyond whatever his realm of expertise is. But viewers obviously warm to his accessible folksiness. Eight years ago, at the 25th anniversary of the "Today" show, a really great communicator named Dave Garroway, "Today's" original host, confessed in a private moment that he preferred "Good Morning America" to his alma mater. "It's a looser, more comfortable show," Garroway said.
McGrady, who was producer of WTTG's "Panorama" program during that show's long-gone golden era, insists the ratings are not down anyway. "We haven't lost audience. Last year 'Today' was No. 3; so now they're No. 2. CBS and NBC trade their audience around. When we started, we never took audience from 'Today.' We created a new, somewhat younger audience of our own. Our numbers are basically the same as last year. They dropped at Christmas but they always do, because our audience is young and very transient.
"Of course I see them 'Today' as a greater threat than they were a year ago. They have done, I think, a tremendous job. What you do to prevent something like this is try to instinctively sort out what the viewers want to see and give it to them," McGrady says.
"From my point of view, I worry every day. Will we have exclusive interviews? What do people want to see? On a day-to-day basis, you're always worried. It's a very competitive situation. But am I awake at night because I'm terrified we're going to be No. 2? Absolutely not."
"Very competitive" is putting it mildly. Ever since CBS expanded its morning news program to two hours, and banished to the land of the lost the venerable Capt. Kangaroo, the morning wars have been furiously waged. Last year, there was a moment of uneasy truce. In Dallas for the Republican convention, both CBS and ABC used the same hotel for headquarters, with "Morning News" broadcasts emanating from an open-air balcony a few floors down from the one occupied by "GMA." Hartman had been peering over the balcony at the "Morning News" folk during breaks in his show all week, and on the last day, the two network control rooms went into rare interlocking synchronization so that Kurtis and Hartman could extend greetings to each other on camera.
But even in this moment of peace, the true nature of the conflict could be gleaned. Hartman couldn't hear them, but while he looked down and shouted to Kurtis, a few of the "Morning News" staff members were half-jokingly whispering, "Jump! Jump!"
Friedman says competition for guests is so severe that he suspects "GMA" agents of phoning the "Today" offices disguised as mere viewers who are inordinately curious about what's going to be on the next day's program and at precisely what time. There are stories of races between rival limousines and of skirmishes over such guests as the mother of Lt. Robert Goodman, the American serviceman freed from Syrian captivity by Jesse Jackson. Friedman claims "Today" had a commitment but that a "GMA" producer showed up at the woman's house claiming to be from "Today" and attempting to whoosh her away. Their plot, Friedman says, was foiled when a "Today" producer dashed in at the last minute.
McGrady laughs this story off as myth but says that when it comes to dirty tricks, "They've pulled a few. I'm not going to tell you what they were. I don't think we're that dirty, no." Katz at CBS says that the competition amounts to nothing less than "beating each other's brains out. It's a real tussle. We do wrestle around on the cliffs a lot. I think it's great. It's exciting, like it used to be in the old newspaper wars. This kind of competition is good for everybody."
Friedman, too, claims to thrive on competition. "There's a lot more attention paid to these morning shows now, and that's good," he says. " 'Today' is much better now than it was seven, eight years ago when there was no competition. When it's no contest, people lose interest." Yet he also concedes that this great, raging, multimillion-dollar contest is among three programs that have become "too similar." Katz, exceedingly touchy about being accused of running a "soft" show, says that two years ago all three morning shows got softer, became "general-interest programs" rather than straight news shows. Under Pressure
Paddy Chayefsky once said he was glad not to be working in television because "I don't like being hysterical all the time." At the three morning network shows, you will find people who are hysterical all the time -- producers and bookers quaking with terror that the other show will get the primo guest signed up before they do. Certainly there is a real question whether three such programs, and all their inevitable duplications, are needed. But this is a question those who produce the programs do not ask themselves; theirs but to produce or bail out. Or burn out. And network executives are hardly likely to sit down and wonder aloud whether they really need the revenue and affiliate good will that morning shows can generate.
Friedman has his own brand of tension reliever. It used to be throwing things: pencils, pads, once even a black-and-white monitor that he wanted replaced with a color one (the only way to get NBC to replace it, he reasoned, was to destroy it). Lately he says he has converted to use of a rubber-band gun appropriated from an Abercrombie & Fitch spot on the show. "I fire at guests and commercials I don't like" when they appear on his control-room monitors, Friedman says. "I've never hit a person, but that could happen any time."
Who is under the greatest pressure now? McGrady is under tremendous pressure not to let a winning streak of more than 150 weeks be interrupted with the embarrassment of a slip into second place, especially during a period of very low morale for the network generally. Friedman is under tremendous pressure to make good on his boasts of overtaking the leader and redeeming the honor of the pioneering network morning program. Katz may be under the most pressure of all, since if this crate doesn't fly, it well may be scrapped.
"What kinks have to come out of that show will come out," says superagent Hookstratten with blustery confidence. Katz says the network will wait three or four years before becoming discouraged but "I'd be very frustrated if it took that long. I'd be disappointed not to get quick results." He means by the end of the year. Friedman says, "I'm glad I'm not there" and suggests the fates are smiling at him now.
"I think news and information television is different from regular television in that in our field, if you do the best job, ultimately you will win," Friedman says. "Huntley-Brinkley ultimately won, Walter Cronkite ultimately won, and we will ultimately win. 'Today' got fat and dumb and lazy for a while. But now we really do the best job." But a CBS executive vows, "We're going to counter-program both those bastards to death with a really juicy electronic magazine." He means business. They all mean business. The business of television is meaning business, and this week, at the morning shows, they mean it more than ever.