This 'Sunday Morning' is Charles Kuralt's last

April 02, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Charles Kuralt says 90 percent of the mail he's received at "CBS Sunday Morning" over the last 15 years includes basically the same plea: "Oh gosh, never change that show. That program our church."

Tomorrow "Sunday Morning" will undergo the biggest and worst change imaginable this side of cancellation when Kuralt signs off as host for the last time. A devoted congregation of viewers will be left without its cultural pastor. And network TV will lose one of its most literate, lucid and reassuring voices.

Charles Osgood, the poet laureate of CBS Radio, will take over from Kuralt as anchor of "Sunday Morning."

The winner of 11 Emmys and three Peabody Awards, Kuralt is one of the last great standard bearers of an informed and responsible brand of broadcast journalism, which has been all but driven from the screen by a new and bloodthirsty pack of tabloid practitioners.

The 59-year-old Kuralt says hisleaving is no big deal -- he just wants to go back out on the road to write a book for Putnam. Tentatively titled "A Perfect Year," the book will consist of Kuralt spending a month in 12 of his favorite places and then writing about them. His last book, "A Life on The Road," published in 1990, was a best-seller.

But, despite all the assurances from CBS and Kuralt that he just wants to get on with his life, there are nagging questions about the suddenness of his retirement that have not been addressed.

In an interview in January with TV critics to promote the 15th anniversary of the "Sunday Morning," Kuralt said he had 3 1/2 years left on his contract with CBS and that he couldn't imagine doing anything else but staying with the show during that time.

"I have given some thought to fly fishing full time. But I don't know. I'm a creature of habit.

"I've been at CBS for 37 years almost, and there are still great satisfactions in 'Sunday Morning.' Hardly ever a Sunday goes by that I don't get a little thrill or become moved by some element of the program -- nothing I did, but something some of our contributors have done," Kuralt said.

And, then, a month ago, he said he was leaving "Sunday Morning" and CBS and that tomorrow's show would be his last.

The abrupt about-face by Kuralt following his return from Olympics coverage in Norway has set the rumor mill abuzz. One tabloid says he's losing his eyesight; another says he's dying. There's industry talk that Kuralt felt his age while in the cold and snow of Norway and that it made him start to rethink his job and his life.

Kuralt took the time this week to try and spike some of the rumors.

"I'm in very good health. I had a medical checkup before Norway, and my doctor says I'm amazingly healthy," he says.

For most of the audience of "Sunday Morning" the reason for Kuralt's departure probably doesn't matter nearly as much as the awful fact that after tomorrow he will be gone from our Sunday mornings forever. And that will make "Sunday Morning" a lot less special.

Kuralt says he knows the show is special.

"I don't know of any other place which pays as much attention as we do to music and dance and painting and literature -- some of the things that lift the spirits.

"We once gave the whole program to a Picasso exhibition. There just turned out to be so many little stories and sidebars that we said, "Aw, the heck with it," and did the whole hour and a half on Picasso," he says.

Kuralt also says he thinks the audience for "Sunday Morning" is special.

"I know that in television terms, we have a small audience. But it is a very devoted audience.

"I've long ago given up categorizing our audience. I think when we started out, I thought it was all college professors in tweed jackets with patches on the elbows.

"But so many cab drivers and skycaps and ordinary folk around the country have told me, 'Boy, we never miss that program. It's our church.' "'

Typical of his understated style -- so at odds with the sensationalism and hype that now dominates network news -- Kuralt says his farewell address during tomorrow's show will last only 30 seconds.

"I don't think we ought to drag these things out," he says.

Osgood, known for "The Osgood File," his droll, four-a-day CBS Radio feature, says, "Although I'm succeeding Charles Kuralt, I know that I cannot replace him. Nobody could."

ON THE AIR

"Sunday Morning" airs at 9 a.m. on WBAL-Channel 11.

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