You'd have been a fool to expect anything really new. "CBS This Morning," latest in a pathetically long line of CBS attempts at a morning show to challenge NBC's "Today" and ABC's "Good Morning, America," premiered yesterday, promising little but delivering it in style.
Kathleen Sullivan, lured away from ABC News to cohost, obviously ranks as the program's most valuable asset and strongest hope. But her on-air companion, CBS correspondent Harry Smith, seems colorless and wan. He looks like Everyman's wife's lawyer. Smith appeared uninterested in the show or its content, not that an excess of content was precisely its problem.
"Feels like we've been doing this for years," Smith said optimistically after the first 30 minutes.
Beyond the natural opening-day goofs -- a stray shot of a crew member standing in a corner, Smith's inability to tell time from the studio clock -- the program looked healthy and shiny, no triumph but certainly no debacle, either.
Both Smith and Sullivan do need to work on their verbs, however. Smith told reporter Victoria Corderi, on the phone from Haiti, "You and your party was assaulted," and Sullivan said later, "Joining us now is two very prominent men."
One of those very prominent men was John Kenneth Galbraith, the economist, who was not accustomed to the breakneck pace of morning TV and dared to attempt a lengthy answer. Sullivan tried to cut in with a new question. Galbraith said, "Just to finish that -- you know, you must never interrupt a professor in less than 55 minutes . . ."
Sullivan laughed, let him continue, and handled the little gaffe with grace. In a way, it was the show's best moment. Sullivan has a natural beam to her; she's a sight for tender, just-opening eyes. Indeed, the word dazzling does not seem too strong.
Clearly, Sullivan is as comfortable on camera as most of the rest of us are slumped into easy chairs with sacks of Cheetos in our laps. She's had her detractors and her supporters throughout her network career, but in one day's work on the new CBS morning show she proved her supporters sage and her detractors silly.
Sullivan projects more intelligence than "GMA's" Joan Lunden (not a major feat, admittedly) and more warmth than "Today's" Jane Pauley. When she relaxes a little, and gets her hair out of her eyes, she'll be sensational.
To emphasize the new cast of "This Morning" as a family unit, producers insisted that Sullivan and Smith share most of the interviews, a real annoyance when Sullivan was interviewing Jesse Jackson (on the successor to the late Harold Washington as mayor of Chicago) and Smith chimed awkwardly in. Similarly, Sullivan was required to waltz into and out of a piece by economics reporter Robert Krulwich, which helped it not a bit.
Krulwich is one of those who turned down the job Smith got. Smith was, at best, third choice for the role. Reminded of that, a CBS News executive harrumphed, "Yes, but Humphrey Bogart was third choice for 'Casablanca.' "
Mark McEwen, the weatherman held over from the disastrous "Morning Program" with Mariette Hartley (produced by CBS Entertainment), continues to imagine he is amusing. Charles Osgood and Faith Daniels capably handle the hard-news updates, and Osgood contributed a piece on an unusual oral surgeon. It rhymed: "From North and South, they bring their mouth." Gee, they're not all going to rhyme, are they?
Jim Lampley, a high-priced sportscaster also lured away from ABC, was bland and boring and an hour late. A CBS News spokesman said Lampley's plane had been delayed.
Wise old Steve Friedman, former executive producer of NBC's "Today," now developing shows for GTG Entertainment, watched the premiere and thought it showed promise, or at least more potential than usual for a CBS attempt.
"There was nothing good about it, and nothing terrible about it," Friedman said. "For the first time ever, they have a strategy: Get on, don't embarrass yourself, and hope you get lucky. You are in a very good position when things can't get worse."
By "things," Friedman means ratings, which during the 10 months of "The Morning Program" plunged to all-time lows for the network, worse even than previous news division efforts in the time slot that starred Daniels and Forrest Sawyer and, before them, Phyllis George and Bill Kurtis. Bringing "CBS This Morning" into the world without the usual blaring fanfare was good planning, Friedman says.
Friedman tried to hire Sullivan himself for his forthcoming TV version of "USA Today." He says, "I think she is a television star."
David Corvo, executive producer of "This Morning," said after the first show that he thought "the whole system sort of worked" and that, but for minor technical glitches, it had gone smoothly.
Late Sunday night, Corvo replaced the music for the show -- originally a variation of the new theme for "The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather" -- with a previously rejected tune. He said the Rather music, in the synthesizer version produced for "This Morning," sounded "too driving, too percussive for our program."
Director Peter Bogdanovich, booked to appear twice a week as a guide to movies available on video, approached his report as if it were his personal Hollywood memoir and never mentioned cassettes once. Corvo said that didn't bother him, though he added, "I thought his performance could improve, but so does he." Corvo thought the first show was "overbooked" (too many guests and segments) and that the writing was "too dry." Also, "It was a little more tape and a little less live than I'd prefer it." He said he aspires to making the show "more casual than before."
Thus the set, which looks like a rich yuppie's beige apartment, includes conversation areas in which the show's regulars, not just the two anchors, can share reportage and chitchat, Corvo said. Of Sullivan and Smith, he declared, "These people interact very well together."
CBS News President Howard Stringer dashed off an interoffice memo after the first program that said, "This morning, CBS News did itself proud." Later, he vowed of the latest version of the CBS morning show, "This one's going to work."
One could easily revive the old argument used against CBS since it broke with its original hard-news concept and started imitating competitors seven years ago: that what CBS is offering does not differ markedly from what the other two networks have on the air at the same hour.
CBS sources say in defense that their version is better and that its coanchors will, in time, demonstrate a more congenial chemistry. Friedman said that CBS must hope that something happens to either "Today" or "GMA," like a change in their casts that would prompt loyal viewers to go searching for an alternative.
"CBS has clearly got the message that America likes that kind of format in the morning, and they're going to do their best to copy it," Friedman said. For once, their best seemed not that bad.