Now it belongs to television's trash bin, like "Supertrain" and "Thicke of the Night" and "Crossroads." This week, after years of steady tottering, "CBS Morning News" collapsed, falling in a heap that splashed more mud on the reputations of CBS and its embattled news division.
The history of the CBS morning program, a comedy of errors for some time, reached farce levels in the past few days with the announcements that the program was being shifted from the domain of the news division after three decades of fitful failure and that producer Susan Winston, who signed on in May, had decided to jump ship.
On Tuesday, Winston told her "Morning News" staff she would stay on with the program until October, but a few hours later, after a meeting with CBS News President Van Gordon Sauter, who hired her, CBS issued the word that she had quit. Friday will be her last day. It will also mark the hour of parting for anchors Forrest Sawyer and Maria Shriver, who were more or less stranded on "Morning News" a year ago and left to fend for themselves.
Throughout the industry there is shock and derision for the way CBS has handled "Morning News," so long its problem child. Competitors are saying the "Morning News" fiasco is a symptom of a new disarray in CBS News, and some question whether current CBS News executives will all be able to ride out the storm.
"We always used to look to CBS to set the standards and carry the banner," said a veteran producer at another network. "Not anymore. That place is a shambles." Another industry observer said, "They appear to have lost whatever class they used to have. A once-proud tradition is being traduced."
"CBS has turned this whole thing into a circus and a soap opera," said producer Winston.
Winston did not lay blame on specific executives, and in fact said her parting was "friendly," but if the circus has a ringmaster it is Sauter. He not only hired Winston; he hired Phyllis George, whose coanchor term was a popular and critical disaster and crippled the broadcast further. Sauter is considered secure at CBS, however; he also holds a vice presidency in the CBS Broadcast Group. A CBS corporate spokesman said yesterday that no executive heads would roll in the wake of the "Morning News" ordeal.
Within CBS, the decision to wrest "Morning News" from the news division is being applauded as a wise move. CBS sources say it frees the news division of having to compromise itself on a program that, for competitive reasons, had to become softer and softer over the years. Now it can be ultrasoft without the news division worrying about it.
But Winston is not one of those applauding the new strategy. "I was supposed to see it as a big thrill that they were going to remove the program from the news division and put it under this new separate unit," she said. "This was supposed to free us of the restrictions of the past. Well, I enjoyed the restrictions of the past. CBS News still means something to those of us in the television community."
Some staff members on the broadcast are skeptical of Winston's professed commitment to deep journalism, however. She had made promises to reinvent morning television and produce a "revolutionary" broadcast. There are indications she planned to rev up the show to a state of high-pitch froth. Winston does not deny, for instance, that former ABC News correspondent and well-known vault explorer Geraldo Rivera was among those she considered as a contributor. "We kicked around five thousand million zillion names," she said.
What pained Winston, she said, was that she was brought in to come up with ideas for a revamped "Morning News" and that all those ideas were first acclaimed, then dumped. "I like to think that I'm a good producer, but I'm not a magician," she said. "I have no idea what they want from me or the program or the staff or anybody.
"After each of my presentations, I would hear from the executives, 'Oh Susan, this is great,' and then, all of a sudden, they change their minds. I now have no idea of what they want."
Neither Winston nor CBS executives would give examples of Winston's ideas. One source said they were not "practical."
Howard Stringer, the CBS News executive vice president in charge of "Morning News," said of Winston: "I understand how she feels. She's had a very tough experience. She put forth a lot of proposals and when they were dashed, she'd put forth some more, and then those were derailed. She was very gracious under the trauma."
Stringer does not want to discuss specific complaints voiced by Winston. Neither does CBS News President Sauter. "Susan Winston is a creative and resourceful producer," Sauter said when told of her remarks, "and I have tremendous esteem for her personally and professionally."
Winston doesn't look back on her short time at CBS as just a "tough" experience. "It was one of the more bizarre professional and personal experiences I've ever had," she said. "It's been very hurtful, very confusing. I'm disappointed and saddened by it."
According to Winston, her fellow victims in all this are Sawyer and Shriver, the young anchors brought in after the failure of Phyllis George (still earning her $1 million annual salary) and Bill Kurtis (back in Chicago where he started, but getting terrible ratings at the CBS-owned station there).
"Maria and Forrest were treated very badly from Day One," Winston said. "They were thrown into their positions. The company gave them no support, no backup, no promotion, no help at all. I told them, 'I inherited your demise, I didn't cause it, so don't blame me.' "
Sawyer, however, disagreed with Winston's interpretation. "I'm not entirely comfortable with the notion that something awful has happened to Maria and me," he said yesterday. "I was a relatively unknown commodity when CBS gave me an extraordinary opportunity. They took a real chance on me. I'm very much better off for having come through this. I don't come off a loser in this at all."
Shriver echoed Sawyer's sentiments. "I took the job with my eyes wide open," she said. "I knew what it entailed, what it was and what the dangers were of it becoming. I certainly didn't go in thinking we would be Number 1 in six months."
She did say that she thought the company would give the Sawyer-Shriver team more of a "run." But she is not bitter. "I look back at this past year and ask myself, 'Would I do this again?' Absolutely, I would. There's no question in my mind. I did a good job. Forrest and I worked well together."
Both Sawyer and Shriver hope to stay at CBS News, they said. Stringer said, "We are trying very hard to keep Forrest and Maria in CBS News. I think they've had a tough time but, well, it's been a tough time."
Stringer said he did not think CBS News is, in a competitor's term, a "shambles."
"CBS News is a remarkably resilient place," said Stringer. "We have had a very difficult two years. We've neither sought nor asked for sympathy. It's something we will work our way through.
"We still have the 'Evening News,' which is better than ever, and '60 Minutes,' which is as brilliant as ever, and 'West 57th,' which has just been picked up. Does that sound like a shambles? No other network has two magazine shows in full cry." ABC will have two, however -- "20/20" and "Our World" -- when the new fall season gets under way.
"What happened was, we walked away from a morning broadcast which we watched, by the nature of the audience, get softer and softer," Stringer said. "That's not something we in the news division were comfortable with."
George Schweitzer, CBS Inc. vice president and spokesman, said he did not think pulling "Morning" away from the news division amounts to a humiliation for CBS News. "I can understand if there's a sense of disappointment, but I do not consider it a humiliation," Schweitzer said. "News people will contribute a major part of the new broadcast."
Schweitzer said the network was threatened with possible defections from angry affiliates -- "they're beating the drums!" -- who complained more at the May affiliate meeting about the lousy ratings for the morning show than they did about the fact that the CBS Entertainment schedule finished in second place for last season. If affiliates began dropping "Morning News" and putting on programs from other sources, Schweitzer said, it would mean CBS might eventually have to give up programming anything in the early morning day part, or time period.
"The humiliation would be losing the time period," said Schweitzer. Sources at CBS News, however, said the affiliates have been complaining and threatening for over a year, and that this was nothing new.
The new morning program will premiere in January. Schweitzer said "a significant number of people" from "Morning News" would be retained as contributors to the new program, even though it will not be a CBS News production. "It is not in the interest of CBS to lose talented people," Schweitzer said.
On Tuesday, as she spoke from her CBS office in New York, Winston was repeatedly interrupted by the loud ringing of a new phone installed just that day for her use. A supply of imprinted memo pads also arrived. "Wouldn't you know," she said, "the day I'm leaving, I get memo pads with my name on them and a new phone."
Shriver, sounding remarkably unperturbed, said yesterday, "I feel I've handled the last couple of weeks in a classy way." Asked if she and Sawyer planned five minutes of farewell on tomorrow morning's show, Shriver said, "We have to ask Susan. Five minutes? She might give us two minutes." Shriver paused. "Whether she does or not, I will say goodbye. Besides, Susan's leaving then anyway."