When bumbling NBC News executives forced Jane Pauley off the "Today" show and brought Deborah Norville into the anchor loop, it was said they had violated the long-standing maxim "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Now, as a result of that fiasco, the "Today" show is broke, but it already seems clear that Joe Garagiola is no Mr. Fixit. The 64-year-old one-time "Today" anchor, who today completes his first week on the show, joined the cast with the assignment of warming it up -- making anchors Norville and Bryant Gumbel appear less strident and harsh -- and stemming the drop in "Today" ratings.
Garagiola's arrival adds little of value to the program. For one thing, his attempts at folksy bonhomie seem forced, like the guy who runs around conventions with a squirting flower in his lapel. Garagiola also brings to mind one of those distant relatives who show up on the doorstep, suitcase in hand, with no place to sleep for the night -- like Tennessee Ernie Ford on a couple episodes of "I Love Lucy."
In addition, Garagiola tends to cling to the notes on his lap while doing his lightweight interview segments, and he makes nearly as many self-conscious remarks about being old as George Burns does. "Looks like my fountain pen leaked, with all the veins I got," he said of his legs one morning. Asked to name his third-grade teacher, he said, "I don't know. I think Abraham Lincoln's sister."
WhenGumbel announced an upcoming feature on grandparents' rights, Garagiola scowled, "Those are my groupies, pal. Watch what you say."
Garagiola greeted Jeff Maltzman, author of a book called "Jobs in Paradise," with a gruff "Good morning, Jeff. I don't want to run out of time. We've got people waiting. What are the best jobs?" He asked a man who publishes a catalogue of baby products what to do if you're changing a diaper and the baby urinates on your necktie.
A rocket scientist he's not.
Obviously the "Today" couches are getting awfully crowded, evident from opening group shots with the family assembled, Gumbel taking the fatherly position in the middle. The "Today" family is getting as populous as "The Waltons," and the show's cast as big as that of "Twin Peaks."
Poor Faith Daniels, the CBS News emigre who now deftly handles the news segments, has a mouthful with her opening greeting. On Wednesday she breathlessly blurted, "Good morning, Bryantdeborahjoe."
Gumbel offered a peep of hope Tuesday when he said the program was "two days into this experiment," suggesting the addition of Garagiola is a temporary measure. "Well, it's not," said "Today" executive producer Tom Capra, when asked about this yesterday.
"I think it's going wonderfully," Capra said of the Garagiola maneuver. "He's bringing life to the show, energy, he asks the questions that everybody wants to know. He's an Everyman figure. All of which is completely obvious if you've been watching."
Capra was asked if adding Garagiola wasn't an admission that Gumbel and Norville were not working out. "Have you seen the ratings?" he growled. "That's a stupid question! The ratings aren't very good; we've lost 15, 20 percent of our audience in the past several weeks. We had to do something about the broadcast."
A simpler solution might have been to replace one of the other cast members. "Well, we decided not to do that," Capra said. "Of course that's a decision we could have made. I just don't believe that we had to blow it up. So we haven't."
There were internal discussions, sources say, of evicting Norville from the program. Dick Ebersol, the NBC News vice president responsible for promoting her, has since voluntarily stepped down as the executive in charge of the program. Norville herself had been brought in to shore up "Today's" dwindling appeal to younger women.
"Women watch women," Ebersol kept saying. Maybe they do -- but not this woman.
Clearly competent, and perhaps unfairly labeled the Dan Quayle of TV journalism, Norville nonetheless continues to grate with her desperate, dizzy, chirpy grin -- extremely inappropriate when, say, announcing that an upcoming segment will be devoted to the 10 most common lures used by kidnappers and child molesters to entice youngsters into their cars.
In a taped piece that aired Tuesday, Norville interviewed Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. The piece got puffy when Norville inquired of the president, "What do you do to relax? When you're not worrying about the economy, and the press, and trade agreements and drug lords, do you really sit around and watch baseball?"
Actually, no. But Salinas did express a fondness for basketball star Michael Jordan and for soccer.
Despite all the problems -- problems brought on mostly through executive incompetence -- the "Today" show remains the best of the three network morning programs. Gumbel may be a heartless cad, but he still does the best interviews on morning TV, whether it's Richard Nixon, as he did a few weeks ago, or South African-born singer Miriam Makeba, who spoke movingly to Gumbel from Johannesburg on Tuesday after decades of exile.
There seems little that Gumbel can't do -- except maybe get along with his fellow humans. Gumbel and Ebersol were reportedly behind the decision to bring Garagiola in, but Gumbel doesn't seem all that thrilled to have Garagiola at his side.
The "Today" show has many advantages over its competitors. The most prominent, of course, is Willard Scott, an unfailing source of morning cheer. Reporter Mike Leonard's weekly spots are clever and brilliantly edited. Freelancer Jon Alpert, a less frequent contributor, is an ingenious first-person journalist.
Katherine Couric, who recently joined the show as national correspondent, is another indisputable asset, as is Daniels, whom CBS News President David Burke clumsily allowed to defect. Gene Shalit may be a silly critic (now outshone by the less gush-prone Gene Siskel, a recent addition to "CBS This Morning"), but his show biz interviews can be rousingly funny and warmhearted.
There remains, as well, a sense of impeccable taste in the tone and ambiance of the show -- in the booking of such musical guests as, on Wednesday, jazz singer Carmen McRae and a thrilling young trumpeter, Ron Hargrove.
Steve Friedman, who was executive producer of the "Today" show when it rose from a lowly No. 2 to an emphatic No. 1, just returned to NBC News to produce "NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw." Asked what he thought of the "Today" show mess recently, Friedman said, "I have an opinion, but I was very smart in staying out of that. They know what they did wrong, and they're trying to correct it."
And can Joe Garagiola really help the show? "I don't think he can hurt," Friedman said diplomatically.
It's too early to tell if Garagiola helped the ratings in his first week. Last week, before he arrived, "Today" had a 3.1 rating and a 16 percent share of the viewing audience. ABC's "Good Morning America" was in first place with a 4.0/20. "CBS This Morning" trailed, as usual, with a 2.2/11.
The question to be answered is whether Garagiola really does offset the grinning chilliness of Norville or if he just proves to be irritating in a different way.
Joking around with Daniels on Thursday for having reported scores from the NBA Finals, Scott told her on the air, "Not only are you doing weather, now you're doing sports! If I were Garagiola, I'd walk out of that place."
He was only kidding, in his Willardly way. But it wasn't such bad advice.