Pour yourself a cup of coffee and settle back for another chapter. Now, to bring us up to date: Bill is leaving Phyllis at last and going back to Chicago. Jon has recovered from his illness and returned to work, only to learn that Susan is not going to replace him after all and he's stuck in the job for a few more months. Phyllis will be back from a mad, carefree vacation tomorrow still smarting from criticism of the way she dealt with the rapist. And old Uncle Nielsen is at the door with very, very, very bad news.
Is it a soap opera? Not exactly, but close. It's "The CBS Morning News," whose travails and misfortunes seem as much the stuff of pulp as the stuff of journalistic history. Morning news shows in general tend to be the richest sources of gossip in network TV; those who work on them love to whisper, and sometimes shout, about each other. The programs are also among the few remaining forms of pure television that the networks do.
Of the three shows, it's the one in perpetual last place, "The CBS Morning News," that gets the most attention, largely because of its new and rather accident-prone co-anchor Phyllis George, Our Lady of the Hug, and her misadventures on and off the air. Jon Katz, the executive producer, has now decided, after a few weeks of radio silence, to go public about the show and its much-discussed fate, having returned from a serious bout with bronchitis to find everything in its usual state of apoplectic hysteria.
"I feel like a juicy spare rib in a nest of starving wolves," Katz moans from his office in New York. "I get 10 calls a day from reporters asking about our show. That's more than some senators get, I'll bet."
Rumors had it that Katz was about to be kicked upstairs at CBS and relieved of the "Morning News," the only current CBS News production that is a ratings disaster. CBS was said to be wooing, as Katz's replacement, Susan Winston, former producer of ABC's "Good Morning, America," the long-dominant morning champ now being seriously challenged by the NBC "Today" show. The "Morning News" isn't seriously challenging anybody.
But insiders say Winston's demands included a $350,000 annual salary, absolute power of hiring and firing, and a six-month escape clause in case she wanted o-u-t, out. So the deal is on hold and Katz has resigned himself to digging in for a longer haul than he anticipated.
"There were some discussions with Susan Winston about coming to CBS News," Katz confirms. "I don't know in what capacity. My understanding is that I'll remain at least for a while. I'm particularly disinclined to leave the 'Morning News' now. It would be like walking out of the Battle of the Bulge after the first armored division comes through."
One person will definitely be walking out: co-anchor Bill Kurtis, whose dissatisfaction with the program and with George has been documented to death. CBS insiders now say Kurtis will be out by the end of June at the latest. Indeed, other sources say a "Bye-bye, Bill" party at CBS has been set for Friday, June 14. That would seem to clinch it.
CBS is looking now for a replacement. Bob Schieffer, who will fill in for Kurtis briefly, does not want the job. CBS will probably go outside its own ranks, although Forrest Sawyer, a relatively new arrival who does the early, early morning news for the network with Faith Daniels, is considered at least a contender. Network news executives most of all want someone who can do crisp, tough, live interviews, one of the talents that Kurtis, they think, lacks.
Whoever the new man is, he will have to be someone who can get along with and complement Phyllis George.
Katz says he wishes Kurtis well and only resents the fact that Kurtis went public with his grumbles about Phyllis George being a lightweight.
"I was pretty pained by that," Katz says. "A lot of the staff were. Bill was certainly never difficult to work with. He is a true professional. It's just unfortunate and unsettling that the problems were made public."
Katz is much more upset about the treatment George has been getting in the press. Criticism escalated after L'Affaire Hug, when George invited a convicted rapist and the woman who first accused, then exonerated, him of raping her to cozy up on the air. The rapist and the victim were on a celebrity talk-show tour. George asked, "How about a hug?"
"I wish she hadn't said it. It was uncomfortable, to say the least," Katz says. "But it's not the Civil War. It was just one thing said in the course of hundreds of things said in a week. It was unfortunate, painful, but in general, it was made out to be a much more grievous episode than it actually was. People were taking an episode and making it out to be a catastrophe. It was getting into the Armageddon realm."
Phyllis George, it is said, cannot take criticism, a real problem in her line of work. But Katz says, "People forget that people on television are humans. They feel things, too. I don't know too many people who would laugh off the depths of criticism and assault Phyllis has had. There's a long list of personal insults that bring this to another level. There've been relentless personal attacks calling her a 'prom queen,' 'an airhead,' and things like that."
George is not unintelligent. She is not without good instincts. Yet she continues to seem unsure of herself in her role as the co-anchor of the program. She may have gone into this assignment thinking she could charm the nation the way she charmed CBS News executives. It hasn't worked. The hug blooper wasn't as onerous in itself as it was indicative of George's general shakiness. Her agent, industry superpower Ed Hookstratten, seems determined now to blame her problems on those who produce the program. That can't be the best way out of a still-sticky situation.
Whatever else CBS wants to change about the "Morning News," it does not want to change Phyllis George.
"We don't view her as anything but successful," Katz says. "She's an asset. She's done some wonderful things. She brings, charm, energy, enthusiasm and versatility to the program. And she's been under a constant and murderous cross fire that few people would survive. We stand very much behind Phyllis and we stand very much behind the broadcast. Nobody's going to walk away from her. No one is in the least inclined to panic."
Panic might not be such a bad idea. Katz says the press resents George because she's rich, glamorous and a former Miss America; but perhaps the viewing public is turned off by her for similar reasons. George wants to be treated as a star, but what viewers want in a morning show host is a friend. On the other hand, Jane Pauley of the NBC "Today" show was considered off-putting to viewers for months herself. Eventually she found a niche and an attitude that now appear to work beautifully.
She does, of course, have considerable journalistic capabilities, a claim that cannot safely be made for George. But the success of a morning news show does not rely on journalistic capabilities. It relies on charisma. Phyllis George has charisma like Einstein had brains. She is lithe and sunny and has an ingenuousness that is ingratiating. Perhaps if the rest of the program, including tweety-pie weatherman Steve Baskerville, weren't so determinedly and relentlessly sunny, George's charms would stand out more attractively.
Recently the "Morning News" logged a miserable 2.9 weekly rating, its worst since August of 1984, the period when Diane Sawyer had left for "60 Minutes" and George had not yet arrived. All those within CBS who said there was no way for the "Morning News" to go but up must now wonder if that indeed is so.
Katz may not be thrilled to remain on board this particular Titanic -- "How long can one physically do it?" he wonders aloud -- but he exudes competitive vigor and resolve. "I have to say that I have a job in which I have not been bored for one single hour," he notes positively. "If anything now, we are more determined than ever to make this work." Adding one more simile to the pile, he says, "I feel I'm in a foxhole and the enemy has the coordinates. You sort of get used to working in cross fire."