CBS smells the coffee Wake-up call: Net- work's morning news show will be revamped, reduced to 1 hour in light of bad ratings.

April 10, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Reacting to dismal ratings for "CBS This Morning," the network announced yesterday that it is taking the radical step of cutting the show to an hour and allowing local stations to use the other hour for their own programs.

That means that beginning Aug. 5, Baltimore viewers will see an extra hour of WJZ's morning show featuring Don Scott and Marty Bass, which now airs from 5: 30 a.m. to 7 a.m. The format will be changed to accommodate network news cut-ins from CBS.

"CBS This Morning" will air from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m., with an overhauled format that focuses on longer features and interviews and does not use a studio audience. It also may have new anchors replacing Harry Smith and Paula Zahn.

CBS News President Andrew Heyward said the question of anchors is yet to be decided, which means Mr. Smith and Ms. Zahn could be retained. But in a shake-up of this magnitude that is unlikely.

Who will or will not anchor, though, is a relatively minor matter compared with CBS giving up an hour of network-controlled time.

"This really is breakthrough. It's something that's simply never happened," said Gail Bending, news director at WJZ.

Jim Warner, president of CBS Television Network, explained his network's decision yesterday by pointing out that local news in the morning is the fastest-growing segment of the TV news business.

"We see this strategy as an opportunity to generate immediate ratings improvement and long term success for CBS News, the network and its affiliates," he said.

Mr. Heyward added, "This bold plan gives CBS stations a real alternative to the other network morning programs -- providing the best in local, the best in national."

The truth is that CBS News had to do something with its morning show or face the possibility of losing both hours. Stations in several markets were threatening to drop "CBS This Morning" altogether in favor of local programming, because the ratings were such a drag on their morning lineups.

In Baltimore, for example, WJZ's morning show dominates in the ratings from 5: 30 a.m. to 7 a.m. weekdays. But from 7 to 9 a.m., the station finishes third behind WBAL and WMAR, with NBC's "Today Show" and ABC's "Good Morning America," respectively.

In that respect, the CBS move is a solid one. It allows the network to at least keep one of the two hours, as well as share in some of the revenue generated during the first hour by such local favorites as Mr. Bass and Mr. Scott. In return for giving local stations the hour, CBS will receive a share of advertising revenue sold during that period.

The move also underscores the changing dynamic of network-affiliate relationships in the new order of network ownership. CBS has a larger stake in the success of its local affiliates since being purchased by Westinghouse last year, because Westinghouse brought several stations it owns to the marriage, among them WJZ.

While WJZ and stations in many of the other top 50 markets are expected to take advantage of the extra hour, CBS News will continue to offer two hours of morning programming for smaller stations that lack the resources to produce their own hour of news.

Pub Date: 4/10/96

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