It’s the day before Halloween, so turn to ABC and you’ll see the “Good Morning America” anchors in costumes promoting a “Monster Mash Dubsmash.” Flip on NBC and the “Today” crew is dressed up as the “Peanuts” gang.
Watch “CBS This Morning” and you’ll notice Charlie Rose and Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell are. . . well, dressed like the grownups they are.
As regular viewers know, that’s intentional. A hard-news focus has helped the show quietly rise in the ratings since it launched nearly three years ago, hitting a milestone 1,000 episodes on Friday. Really, pretty much everything “CBS This Morning” does is quieter than its broadcast counterparts. There are no celebrity news segments, or cooking demonstrations, or summer concert series with thousands of screaming fans.
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) October 30, 2015
However, it’s also often left out of headlines about the morning show ratings wars, as rivals “Today” and “GMA” battle it out for No. 1. “CBS This Morning” has long been in third place: Last week, according to TV Newser, “GMA” won with an average of 4.8 million viewers; “Today” had 4.4 million; and “CBS This Morning” netted 3.3 million.
But “CBS This Morning” is up 10 percent in total viewers during the most recent broadcast year, which network execs see as a definite move in the right direction. Granted, it’s still tough to be third, says executive producer Chris Licht.
“We’re all very competitive people,” Licht said. “That’s been a challenge. [Morning] TV is a glacial kind of thing, it’s very habit-forming. We’re moving in the right direction, but I want to knock on every door in America and say ‘Just try us for one day. You’ll really like it!’”
At the moment, there seem to be quite a few viewers who prefer watching a more serious newscast in the early hours. “CBS This Morning” launched in January 2012 after the network canceled “The Early Show,” its most recent failed attempt in a decades-long effort to get a morning foothold. The goal was to start from scratch with a new show following the tone of CBS’s “Evening News” and “60 Minutes,” which remains the objective today. Licht credits much of the show’s loyal following to the chemistry between anchors Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell. The trio gets along on and off-set, and the audience can tell.
“The thing that took patience but paid off was letting the anchor team gel,” Licht said, adding that morning shows need “an anchor team that connects with the audience. . . You have to let it marinate for awhile.”
Of course, that was the source of “Today’s” stumbles a few years ago, marked by Ann Curry’s botched exit and the awkward interactions between the show’s anchors. Viewers revolted, and that’s when “GMA” moved in for the kill, sliding into first place as the audience connected with the easy banter of George Stephanopoulos, Robin Roberts and Lara Spencer.
— Good Morning America (@GMA) October 30, 2015
But “CBS This Morning” remains focused on its “real news” objective while still looking for ways to steadily attract an audience. Licht maintains he’s not thinking too much about the competitive pressures from the other shows. “The way we look at the ratings, we kind of have blinders on,” he said. “We thankfully are a little bit out of that food fight. . . We really focus on growing the ratings day by day, month by month, year by year.”
And yet it still attracts celebrity guests, which Licht credits to the Rose-King-O’Donnell dynamic. Producers sweeten the pot for Hollywood luminaries by stretching their interviews a few extra minutes and opening the conversation to a wide range of topics. Actress Sienna Miller recently admitted to being “starstruck” by the panel, Licht said.
As the ratings trend upwards (that first week back in January 2012 averaged a mere 2.7 million viewers), no one is resting on their laurels. “You can always be more competitive and more relevant,” Licht said. There is little temptation to stray from the hard-news mission. The few times the show has veered from its formula, viewers notice and aren’t pleased.
Which is why Friday’s episode No. 1,000 was kept a low-key celebration. At the end of the broadcast, Rose, King and O’Donnell briefly reflected on the milestone. (King: “This is a really big deal to us and we are really, really psyched about it.”) After that, Licht planned an off-camera champagne toast and a cake for just the staff.
“That’s really deliberate,” Licht said. “The best way to celebrate is to do the news.”