CBS playing its ace: Gumbel

TV: After multiple failures in a lucrative time slot, the network hopes to cash in with a proven morning anchor.

July 27, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

LOS ANGELES -- It was vintage Bryant Gumbel.

In meeting with the press to discuss his role as anchor of a new CBS morning show, he acknowledged mistakes were made in his last job at the network, host of the failed prime-time newsmagazine"Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel."

"I'm a proud guy and a confident guy, and any time you don't do as well as you thought you could have, you come away somewhat tainted. There were a lot of reasons it didn't work, many of them mine," Gumbel said.

But when he was asked to be specific about his failings, he ended the discussion, saying, "I don't think this is the proper forum to discuss it."

Apparently, too much contrition is not good for the soul.

Yesterday's forum was designed to promote "The Early Show," the new CBS morning show that will bring Gumbel, 50, back to live television starting Nov. 1. Gumbel ruled mornings as co-host of NBC's "Today" from 1982-1997 -- the longest morning anchor run in TV history.

The set for "The Early Show" is yet to be built, and CBS doesn't have a co-host for Gumbel.

There is a long and bleak history -- that dates back to Walter Cronkite playing host with a puppet named Charlemagne -- of CBS getting killed in the morning ratings race. CBS is to mornings what NBC was to prime-time newsmagazines before its 19th attempt, "Dateline," clicked.

But CBS wants us to believe things will be different for its new foray into the morning wars where "Today," with Katie Couric and Matt Lauer, dominates, while ABC's "Good Morning America" is second with its high-profile but temporary team of Diane Sawyer and Charles Gibson.

You can almost see the dollar signs in the eyes of Les Moonves, the president of CBS Television, when he says, "We now have a guy who has won in the time period, who is known for doing well in the mornings. How much better will we do? The sky is the limit, but remember, a tenth of a ratings point amounts to a huge amount of money in that day part."

In addition to Gumbel, CBS also has Steve Friedman, who brought "Today" to dominance for NBC, as executive producer. On Nov. 1, Friedman will bring the CBS show to the ground floor of the General Motors Building on Fifth Avenue and East 59th Street in Manhattan. Passers-by will be able to see Gumbel and his co-host like the anchor teams at ABC and NBC.

But the key to the show's success is ultimately going to be Gumbel and the chemistry between him and his co-anchor. Does he have veto power over candidates in what Andrew Heyward, the president of CBS News, calls "Operation Glass Slipper"?

"I don't like to look at that way," Gumbel said. "There are four of us [Moonves, Heyward, Friedman and Gumbel] engaged in the search and the decision, and I think every one us respects the others' views," Gumbel said.

"But I think they would be quick to tell you that it would not make a lot of common sense for them to force someone upon me who I didn't want to work with."

Translation: Yes, he has veto power.

"This is a tremendous opportunity for me to help build something from scratch," Gumbel said. "Morning television is something I truly enjoy. ... I can't wait for Nov. 1."

CBS also announced that Martha Quinn, a former VJ on MTV, and Lisa Birnbach, author of "1003 Great Things About Kids," will be featured in a weekly segment on parenthood titled "Yikes, I've Grown Up" on "The Early Show."

Pub Date: 7/27/99

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