For all the breathless scuttlebutt that preceded it, and the months of work that went into it, the revamped "CBS Morning News" that premiered yesterday came across as anticlimactically subdued. Apparently many of the changes CBS News executives are going to wreak on the broadcast will be introduced gradually over the coming weeks so as not to jar morning viewers unduly.
The major change was fully on view, however: Phyllis George, doing a breezy, confident job on her first day as permanent, insofar as anything in television is permanent, cohost. Perhaps to give her a maximum showcase, the role of Bill Kurtis, dependable "Morning News" veteran, seemed sharply reduced. He had little to do but read the news at the top of each half hour and introduce segments in which George pranced and gamboled.
Another nail was certainly driven into the coffin of the hard-news reputation that the program once had. That's deader than dead. The show wears a smile button three miles wide. Even the straight news segments helmed by Kurtis were tainted with gladness. In the 8 o'clock news block, Kurtis had to turn to "footnotes in the news" that were simply People magazine tidbits, including one about Ava Gardner guest-starring in a forthcoming episode of the CBS series "Knots Landing."
It is painful to watch Kurtis having to endure this kind of insult. As his role is diminished, that of bubbly-wubbly weatherman Steve Baskerville is increased. This guy could report a pole-to-pole crack in the earth with a cheery puss. Significantly, he was included in the closing shot of the show's principals. CBS wants to give more of a "family" impression. Viewers like to be confided in, not talked to, the philosophy goes. In the case of George, they may also get the feeling of being talked down to.
George was chipperness incarnate. "I'm so excited about the challenge of a new job, a new city, and all the changes here at the 'Morning News,' " she said as the program began. She continued the running autobiography she began when guest hosting the program last year. "You know, I'm from Denton, Texas, as you know," she said to weatherman Baskerville, returning to her memories of childhood snowfalls later in the program.
When George jokingly asked if one and all would like to hear about her problems in moving to New York, Kurtis, surely half-seriously, said no, adding, "We can spread that out over the next year." The second hour began with George recapping the previous hour of her life: "So far I've enjoyed it."
Rousingly pretty but in a comfortable, girl-next-door sort of way, George was able to handle without strain an interview with Dr. William DeVries, the artificial heart man (evidence of the show's increased, perhaps obsessive, emphasis on medical matters), but was at her best during a live interview with Burt Reynolds, probably the most reliably engaging and interviewable movie star we have (the show's usual movie star interviewer, Pat Collins, was mercifully absent yesterday). At the end of the chat, George asked Reynolds to stand next to her to prove rumors of his failing health were untrue. It was charming. If that's what one wants in the morning, one got it.
The new animated graphics, theme music and set are all spankingly attractive and serviceable. Even with all the new hardware in place, there were few technical fluffs, the most noticeable being the sudden appearance of a computer hacker in Minneapolis being outfitted with a microphone when Kurtis introduced reporter Don McNeil. It was just the push of a wrong button.
While the new "Morning News" pushed right buttons as well as wrong yesterday, it was obvious that almost all the hopes for the show's survival are pinned on George. She does have a contagious, even if faked, enthusiasm. "Very nice! Look at that!" she gasped of some snow sculptures. "How chic!" she trilled of Nancy Reagan's inaugural gown. It was all very goshy, very gushy, very kissy-face. And, truth be told, whatever this may say about the decline and fall of civilization via television, rather engaging.