To no one’s surprise, Charlie Rose is no alarm clock, and “CBS This Morning,” the network’s umpteenth approach to the morning show format, is a gentle nudge. Lots of news in its first hour and remedial pop-culture chitchat, courtesy of Gayle King, in its second hour. And a third anchor, Erica Hill, bridging a gap labeled “etc.”
It will take some time for “CBS This Morning” to locate its proper place in the realm of TV’s crowded and buzz-addicted field of morning brew-haha, but it’s easy to predict that once that place is found, the show still won’t be atop the ratings.
That’s not to say that “CBS This Morning’s” debut Monday was bad. It’s just that the daily morning slot is and may forever be CBS’s mysterious anemia. The network may dominate prime time, and it can deliver a solid nightly newscast (courtesy of Scott Pelley); “60 Minutes” will never be equaled, and CBS has no problems with its late-night lineup (David Letterman, Craig Ferguson); it even possesses a rare jewel in “CBS Sunday Morning,” a “This American Life” for people well past their hipster years.
But weekday mornings just weren’t meant to sizzle here. It’s as if this were fatefully predetermined years ago, when the pioneers of television started erecting transmitter towers. I wouldn’t blame CBS for one day deciding to let its success in other time slots speak for itself and try rebooting “Captain Kangaroo.” (A job either Rose or King might also be interested in, though Rose is more of a Mr. Green Jeans.)
Acknowledging this state of affairs is a better solution than trying to deny it or eradicate it with marketing, which is how Rose got here — and he seemed happy enough Monday to sit at a round glass table on “CBS This Morning’s” bricky new set, with its see-through green room and its restauranty vibe.
Rose’s voice and demeanor, which have for so long been a certain viewer’s idea of nightly televised melatonin, are just as pleasant to stir awake to — if not exactly encouraging you to jump out of bed. The first hour was an informative jog through New Hampshire and Tuesday’s Republican primary vote. Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich beamed in (Taped earlier? Live? It was difficult to know) to swipe a bit more at Mitt Romney’s “pious baloney” (Sunday’s trending campaign jargon) and wish “CBS This Morning” success. “I know you’re going to do a tremendous job,” Gingrich told Rose.
Near the end of the news report, Pelley dropped by with addenda to his “60 Minutes” story that aired the night before, a startling and typically outrageous investigation into the phony stem-cell market.
Rose looked a little tired, chasing camera cues and shuffling papers, but who wouldn’t? I’ve been on the sets of morning shows, and all of them feel a little like a packed bus, filled with anchors and guests (And movie stars, and animals, and saute pans!), careening off a cliff, even on a slow day. It’s hard to hold on for dear life and make meaningful small talk. At one point, teasing to a spot about Beyonce’s new baby, Rose said the blessed event “has been called a huge Twitter topic that Twitter friends have been tweeting.”
That sort of techie malapropism drives the young folks cray cray, but it is just my speed for 7 a.m.: Slowwww and steady, a little caffeine with an Aleve chaser. Not all of us can spar with “Morning Joe”; not at this hour. And at least “CBS This Morning” isn’t an empty gabfest. I’ve never understood morning TV’s trend toward the hyperactive, but then again, a brand new day has never caused me the panic and consumer anxiety (Allergies! Cholesterol! Missing toddlers!) that most morning TV, especially the “Today” show, likes to sell.
To that end, “CBS This Morning” could do with a great deal more looseness and departure from format — the freedom to be in last place and to do a show with calm confidence and even some sense of surprise. By the time King took over the 8 o’clock hour for the lighter fare, “CBS This Morning” still looked too much like a garden-variety morning show: Speculative infotainment on the Duchess of Cambridge’s 30th birthday and all that, interrupted by the onslaught of commercial breaks that mar morning shows in the latter half.
“I was up at 2:31 [a.m.]!” King said, marveling at the cruel fate of this job — a cushy prison of crack-o’-dawn cheer. She was talking to singer Melissa Etheridge, who, King noted, had “nothing to promote. You just want to join the conversation.” Which Etheridge did, explaining why celebrities such as Beyonce need entire hospital wings in which to give birth and how pretty Adele’s singing voice is.
Then, after CBS’s “Good Wife” star Julianna Margulies was interviewed, the anchors seemed to run out of things to say. A long piece about Dick Van Dyke was apparently pegged to the fact that, eons ago, he hosted the CBS morning show with Walter Cronkite. It was a disaster, the now 86-year-old Van Dyke recalled.
What’s the message there? That it was ever thus?
“It’s the first day of school,” King said of Monday’s broadcast before the trio signed off. “I hope we get good grades.”
Oh, Gayle. Nobody gets graded on the first day of school. You’re on CBS, girlfriend, in the morning. You’ll get plenty of points for just showing up.
(two hours) airs weekdays at 7 a.m. on CBS.