How excited are we supposed to get over the fact that CBS has revamped its morning news program for the umpty-umptieth time? Panting, breathless, veritably hysterical with heart-pounding anticipation? In terms of tantalizing prospects, this one ranks somewhere in the vicinity of adding another slice of pickle to a Quarter Pounder With Cheese.
One new variable makes the latest revamp stand out, however, and that is the return of never 'umble Bryant Gumbel to the profitable morning TV arena. Yesterday, after weeks of perfunctory hype, Gumbel made his first morning-show appearance since leaving NBC's "Today" in early 1997 after a spectacular 15-year run. "The Early Show" premiered on CBS, with Gumbel and Jane Clayson as co-anchors.
Result: CBS has a respectable presence in morning television for the first time in many years, with Gumbel bringing the show instant credibility, class and clout. Beyond that, there's nothing to get into much of a tizzy about.
The show seems competent, polished, satisfactory. There were a few maiden-voyage technical goofs, but generally the comfort level was high. So now, instead of two similar network shows to choose from--"Today" and ABC's "Good Morning America"--viewers have three.
Onward and upward. Or really, onward and sideways.
Impeccably dressed as always, though having a hard time deciding whether to wear glasses, Gumbel greeted viewers with a grim face to report on the aftermath of the EgyptAir plane crash. Clayson was as grim or grimmer. The first 13 minutes of the show were solid news, most of it related to the crash.
The last part of that segment was a snippet from Gumbel's interview with President Clinton, taped Sunday afternoon. Viewers were told that the rest of the interview would air later in the show. But the clip ran on and on, with Gumbel getting into the subject of the Mideast peace process and then saying, "Let's talk politics" to Clinton. No, no, no. That should have been kept for later.
Steve Friedman, executive producer of the program and Gumbel's old pal from "Today's" heyday, sometimes lacks for news sense. The first part of that segment was a dull stand-up with correspondent Jon Frankel on screen in Newport, R.I., and no footage of the crash site. Later came Bob Orr with an animated simulation of how the crash may have occurred; that should have been first, not Frankel's static babble.
Of course, all three network morning shows now have outdoor locations from which to air parts of their shows. "Today" has a convenient little cranny near its corner of Rockefeller Center. ABC recently unveiled new studios for "Good Morning America" with windows on Times Square. CBS's so-called "Studio 58," for "The Early Show," is at ground level in the General Motors Building near the Plaza and Sherry-Netherland hotels.
Friedman can hardly be accused of stealing the idea, since he more or less invented it while at the "Today" show; he moved the show's studios to the main floor and let passersby peep in. The site became a top tourist attraction. Weathermen Willard Scott and Al Roker did festive person-on-the-street interviews to give the show built-in, guaranteed light moments.
Filling, or trying to fill, that role on "The Early Show" is a holdover from previous CBS morning flops, Mark McEwen, a TV personality desperate to be loved by one and all. He's glib and shallow and manages to make everything he says seem forced and phony. He should be hosting "Hollywood Squares" or something. He doesn't really belong on a news program.
During the second half-hour of the show, more of Gumbel's interview with Clinton aired. The president did a deft, balletic sidestep when Gumbel asked him whether he might be considered a "liability" to the Al Gore campaign for president or the Hillary Rodham Clinton campaign for New York senator. Twice, incidentally, Gumbel referred to Gore and Hillary as "the two people closest" to Bill Clinton. Hey, Bryant--ever hear of Chelsea? Or the fact that Clinton and Gore are not considered bosom buddies?
Julie Chen capably handles the straight news segments of the show, mercifully eschewing the bubbly-wubbly approach of slap-happy Ann Curry over on NBC. For some strange reason, though, Chen was showing a clip of the Gumbel-Clinton interview only 10 minutes after it aired during the first half-hour. Commendably, the show has a regular daily look at doings on Wall Street.
Also, Gail O'Neill, who reports on the entertainment business, brings a slightly more skeptical eye to the reportage than her counterparts on NBC and ABC. In other words, she doesn't just do a rah-rah-rah for the top five movies at the weekend box office. O'Neill dared to point out that grosses were pretty paltry for everybody over the Halloween holiday. Unfortunately, her voice-over commentary vanished inexplicably during a piece about high-grossing horror movies.
During the third half-hour, billionaire and aspiring presidential candidate Donald Trump dropped by to wish Gumbel and Clayson well and predicted they would have "a long, beautiful stay" in their new location. Later came the lamest and most shameless pre-taped segment, a so-called tour of the neighborhood conducted by Kevin James, star of the humor-deprived CBS sitcom "The King of Queens." Is the GM Building in Queens? No, but--well, it's obvious why James was there. He wasn't any funnier stumbling through the piece than he is on his own show.
A word should be said about the local news inserts from Channel 9, the Washington CBS affiliate. The word: Help! The station, owned by greedy Gannett, has managed quite a feat with these five-minute updates: The commercial content is greater than the news content. For example, the 8:25 "Eyewitness News" segment contained approximately 1 minute 50 seconds of news and 3 minutes 5 seconds of commercials and promos.
An hour earlier, the segment had 1 minute 45 seconds of news and 3 minutes 10 seconds of commercials. At 7:55, viewers got a real break: 2 minutes 15 seconds of news vs. 2 minutes 30 seconds of ads. And then the station has the nerve to air a promo claiming Channel 9 is "where local news comes first." Oh, what a horrible station, and how dramatic its decline as Washington's news leader over the years.
It would be nice if CBS's "Early Show" differed more dramatically from its competitors on the two other major networks. But the formulas for these shows are all but set in stone now. And early-morning viewers traditionally like a practical and comforting predictability from such programs.
Finally, as with so much of television, it boils down to personalities. NBC has a lovable winner in Katie Couric. ABC has a prestigious grand dame in Diane Sawyer. And now CBS, for the first time in years, has a formidable contender in Bryant Gumbel. You can't go wildly wrong with any of the shows, and you can't go wildly wrong by skipping all three of them and listening to the radio, either.
CAPTION: Competent and credible: "Early Show" co-anchors Jane Clayson and Bryant Gumbel, rehearsing Friday at CBS's ground-level studio in New York's General Motors Building.
CAPTION: Co-anchors Jane Clayson and Bryant Gumbel, taking a point last week.