Bryant Gumbel returns to morning television Monday as the star of a new CBS morning program, "The Early Show." And, while CBS News is running a publicity blitz with everyone including Gumbel saying the right things, the truth is that there are all sorts of questions connected with the new show, and expectations are, in fact, relatively low.
You need look no further than Baltimore for evidence of the real let's-wait-and-see attitude with which industry and even CBS insiders are greeting the new show. WJZ (Channel 13), which is owned by CBS, will air only one of the two hours of the new broadcast each weekday.
Instead of carrying the first hour of the new CBS program from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m., WJZ will stick with its own locally produced morning program featuring Don Scott and Marty Bass. It won't join the network for "The Early Show" until 8.
This is a station owned by CBS essentially saying, "Thanks, but no thanks."
Jay Newman, the vice president and general manager of WJZ, says, "We're very excited about 'The Early Show.' We've had personal briefings and discussions about it with CBS News, and this is probably the biggest commitment in years that they've made to mornings.
"We think the show is going to be dramatically improved with the premier morning personality in Bryant Gumbel. But we're in a situation where we are very, very strong in the mornings with our own show, so we are basically going to be utilizing the same format that we have been from 7 to 8 with Don and Marty," he adds.
Like WJZ, 25 percent of all CBS affiliates and owned stations will not be carrying the first hour, according to Sandy Genelius, network vice president for communications. And, while you might wonder how an station can say no to the network that owns it, the answer is simple: money.
The economics of network television are such that, if you took away revenue earned by owned stations, all the networks would be operating in the red. Owned stations like WJZ are the cash cows that make network television profitable. And, for the time being at least, WJZ can make more money for CBS by running top-rated Bass and Scott from 7 to 8 than it can running Gumbel and his new co-host, former ABC News correspondent Jayne Clayson.
So, why even bother building a new studio, as CBS has done in the General Motors Building of the Trump International Plaza, and bringing in Gumbel, Clayson and a new executive producer, Steve Friedman? Because, if you can get to be No. 1 nationally in the mornings, there is big money to be made. "Today," the current leader, earned about $145 million in profits for NBC last year.
Unlike other parts of the day, overall viewership is growing for network TV in the morning. And, with prime-time newsmagazines maxed out, where else could a news division make that kind of money?
Friedman says the increase in morning viewers is the result of "more people working, more people going to school," so there are more people who are up in the morning trying to get ready for the day.
"And it's tough to watch a two-hour movie on HBO at 7 in the morning. It's even tough to get on the old Web and Internet because we're doing other things with our hands in the morning, like throwing tomatoes at the kids and stuff like that," he said.
"So the idea here is to be part of that growth. We're not going to reinvent the wheel of morning television. We're going to do some new spokes. We intend to do a program that has a little edge, isn't bland, isn't as predictable. And we intend to do a show with a little attitude.
"As far as slaying the dragon, we can't worry about that," Friedman says of "Today," which has an audience of about 5 million homes vs. 2.5 million for CBS' show.
Andrew Heyward, the president of CBS News, is also trying to lower expectations when he says, "I don't think we should just set this up as, you know, there's a Goliath that has to fall for us to be David. There's plenty to gain without having to make suddenly grandiose claims about what's going to happen with the 'Today' show."
One of the obvious gains is in putting Gumbel to work. Gumbel collects $5 million a year from CBS whether or not he is on the air. Last year, he collected his salary for doing next-to-nothing after his prime-time newsmagazine, "Eye to Eye," was canceled.
With a run of 15 years as host of "Today" making him the most successful anchorman in the history of morning television, doesn't Gumbel feel he's risking a lot by coming back and facing the possibility of back-to-back failures after having left NBC on top?
"I've got to be honest with you," Gumbel says. "That never occurs to me. I mean, this is what I do for a living. I'm a broadcaster. I do live television. It's what I do.
"And I do it as well as I think I can, and I hope people enjoy it. Because one part of it didn't work out as I might have hoped doesn't mean I should stop doing it. And if fear of another failure is going to stop me from doing it, then I probably shouldn't have been doing it in the first place."
"I think people miss Bryant in the morning," says Friedman, who was Gumbel's boss at NBC's "Today" in the 1980s.
"I think they miss Bryant's interviewing. I think people are going to look at our show, they're going to check it out. And, in news and information on television, if you do the best job, ultimately you win.
"That doesn't mean you win on Tuesday if you did the best job on Monday. So, I can see some people initially taking a wait-and-see approach.
"It's our job to do the best. Our friend and mentor, Grant Tinker [president of NBC in the 1980s], said this to us in the '80s, and we remember it to this day, 'First, you'll be best, then you'll be first.' That's what we're trying to do."
In the 47-year history of network morning television, CBS has never been either first or best. That's a lot of history and longtime viewing habits to overcome.