Call me crazy, call me mad, call me incredibly forgetful, but I miss Phyllis George. She was beautiful and fresh, and just looking at her made the morning less mean. Of course, you couldn't just look at her, which is where the problems developed.
Now that George has been off "The CBS Morning News" for some time, however, what was always painfully obvious has become brutally obvious: the "Morning News" is a lousy show. Waking up to it is less pleasant than waking up to the gong from "King Kong" or the whine of a smoke alarm. The show is antsy, it's noisy, it's too insistent for an early-hour program, and it continues to exhibit an apparently terminal case of conceptual confusion.
The set is cold, the weatherman is wimpy, the announcer gets on your nerves (he's always pushing, imploring, importuning), the graphics are too busy, the music is jangly and intrusive. The program has bad manners. It keeps tugging at you and begging you not to leave. Of course, if one only has six viewers (ratings are worse than they were with Phyllis), one would be inclined toward excessive solicitousness. They're so frantic about it, though; you half expect that irritating announcer to say, "Don't go away, because if you do go away, we'll search you out and drag you back to your television set."
All these complaints are relatively superficial considering that the show (a) just doesn't work, (b) just hasn't ever worked and (c) just won't ever work, at least not until a new executive producer is brought in and the whole thing overhauled again. And does CBS have the energy for that? That major changes at the top have not been made in the show gives credence to a recently resurfaced industry rumor: that CBS News will surrender the show to the entertainment division, come December.
If it does, it will not be quite fair to say the news division gave it a good try. Not even the old college try (maybe the old kindergarten try). The thrust of the show is wrong. It's thrustless. It's a combination of a bad "Today" show and a bad "Good Morning America." It's for people who think those two shows are too good.
At times it also looks like "A.M. Podunk."
The two new coanchors seem able and bright. Forrest Sawyer, an unknown out of Atlanta, can conduct a panel on air traffic control, interrogate a round table of economists, chat with Dick Cavett or interview the chairman of Sony with versatile ease, and he looks as though he actually cares about the answers to his questions. He is partnered on the program with Maria Shriver's hair. Shriver does not look as if she cares about the answers to many questions except "Where's my brush?" and "What time will Arnold be home?" She sucks in her cheeks and deflates her face, looking a little like one of those cartoon characters who got slipped a dose of alum.
However, she is no dummy. Last week, she acquitted herself nicely in an interview with two former secretaries of defense. This is something Phyllis, for all her beaming joie de matin, could never have done. All the questions would have had to be written out for her on a teleprompter and she wouldn't have understood any of the answers.
So let's say Sawyer and Shriver show promise, that they're coming along. They still can't help seeming like junior varsity when competing against established pros like Jane Pauley and Bryant Gumbel on NBC's "Today Show" and the durable talking totem pole, David Hartman, on ABC's "Good Morning America." As it is now, "Morning News" looks like a local news show with network plants on the set. It lacks a national-magnitude star. At least with Phyllis, it did have that.
Sloppiness reigns on the program. Segments are poorly planned and often end prematurely. Airplanes should take off from National as briskly and rapidly as segments are shuttled in and out of the program. A strong personality can hold a show together, but even a strong personality might be undone by this show's manic modular approach.
The operative philosophy appears to be sheepishness and fear. For all the hype that preceded the major revamp unveiled in January, when Phyllis signed on, there really was nothing sufficiently revolutionary about the new "CBS Morning News." The lesson should have been learned by now that the most practicable way to make inroads into territory dominated by the other networks is with some drastic, innovative departure in format. ABC News invented a new form with "Nightline." CBS News did it with "60 Minutes." It's time to invent something new in the morning or else close down the shop and move to another neighborhood.
Wags at other networks scoff at "The CBS Morning News." They refer to Maria of the sunken cheeks as "Morticia" (a gaunt character on "The Addams Family") and to novice Sawyer as "Forrest Lawn." (Morning news types play very rough.) In other quarters, the program has taken on a nickname befitting its status at the bottom of the ratings: "Run Silent, Run Deep."
CBS is busily blaming Ted Turner and costs incurred from rebuffing his attempted takeover of the company for the fact that 74 employes of CBS News were recently laid off and others coaxed into taking early retirement. Fortunately for George, this cost-cutting binge did not preclude her walking away from the "Morning News" with a tidy $2 million in settlement money. But who could really begrudge her? Even $3 million might be insufficient. She signed up for this cruise on the assumption that the captain and the other officers on deck knew where they were going and how to get there. It turns out they did not. The Bounty and the Caine may have been in better hands.
One plan for saving the show apparently was scuttled because of cost considerations. Bob Schieffer, as able and accomplished as network correspondents get, considered taking the job of "Morning News" cohost, but only if he could do his anchoring out of Washington, with the hard news segments focused here, the fluff remaining in New York. Penny-pinching management reportedly shot the idea down.
There are good things about the program. Faith Daniels, who now reads the news, does it with skill (although saying "good morning" to the cohosts and then "good morning to all of you" to the audience is a trifle arch). Robert Krulwich, the inventive economics reporter, makes financial subjects not only comprehensible but amusing, and his antic light touch goes well with the early hour; he's a true discovery. Warner Wolf is the brightest and funniest sportscaster around; he returned to the show immediately after Phyllis left, having ankled it himself soon after she arrived. Industry insiders blanched at the obviousness of the timing. But Warner is unquestionably an asset (he only appears on Fridays, though).
It was encouraging, too, when "Morning News" parted company with "critic" and entertainment reporter Pat Collins recently; she was the critic who loved everything, especially movies whose stars she interviewed. But her replacement is the equally fatuous Dennis Cunningham, an embarrassment from the CBS-owned station in New York. It looks as though nobody searched very hard for candidates.
The shame of "The CBS Morning News" is not in being in third place. When Charles Kuralt had the show, briefly, he was in third place, too, but at least it was failure with honor. The show had a more distinctive identity then than it does now. Can this program be saved? Some of the pride of CBS News is at stake, and there isn't as large a surplus of that anymore as there used to be. Until radical departures are attempted, probably involving a few more departures by show personnel, it will continue to be "The CBS Mourning News" five doleful days a week.