Fewer smiles, more smarts.
That's what you get on "The CBS Morning News" with Forrest Sawyer and Maria Shriver. And without Phyllis George.
The oft--and deservedly--criticized George recently announced she was leaving the show for "personal and professional reasons." An apparent "personal' reason was the decision of her husband, former Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown, to make another gubernatorial run.
No word on the "professional" reason or reasons. But you can fill in the blanks yourself.
The bubbling, babbling George, who was joined by Bob Schieffer as temporary co-anchor after Bill Kurtis departed the show, was not very good. She had many teeth, but no news credentials. She was swell-looking and sweet-sounding, but also unprepared to stay afloat on even a lightweight newscast, a non-swimmer washed overboard without even water wings.
That would have been acceptable to CBS had she not also failed to improve the show's third-place ratings. You can't blame her for accepting the money, the job and the challenge, but you can blame CBS for making the offer. If George wasn't an embarrassment to CBS, she should have been.
Enough of the brief and bumbling, though. Onward to the Georgeless "CBS Morning News." And upward, it appears.
Weathercaster and former stand-up comic Steve Baskerville is still around. But there is a different tune from Sawyer and Shriver, who have been in place as a team since George went on a reported vacation more than two weeks ago.
Sawyer, who also co-anchors "The CBS Early Morning News" with Faith Daniels and recently filled in for Dan Rather on "The CBS Evening News," has spent most of his career as a local anchor. But he is already establishing himself as an incisive interviewer--crisp, commanding, intelligent and fast on his feet.
Although Sawyer isn't shrill or unfair, he is definitely in charge, his high-energy interviews at times reminding you of a teacher rapping his pointer against the blackboard to quiet an unruly class. He is a whiz at knifing through verbosity. Last Friday, he astutely boiled down the academese of a scholar guest who had written a complicated book about the Soviet downing of the South Korean jetliner two years ago.
This is TV, though. So Sawyer also has a stopwatch in his head and is almost brutal in keeping an interview to prescribed time limits (probably with a director shouting into his ear).
On Tuesday, a British economist was in mid-sentence about South African finances. "Let me just stop there!" Sawyer interjected, moving on to American economist Alan Greenspan. Sawyer was as merciless in ending an interview with three U.S. senators in Moscow just as Republican Sen. John Warner was attempting to speak.
TV newscasts are measured by personalities as well as ratings, and at this point you can bet that Forrest Sawyer is the backbone of "The CBS Morning News." But Shriver--a CBS news reporter since 1983 and probably best known for being the daughter of Sargent Shriver and fiancee of Arnold Schwarzenegger--is a fast learner.
She is a far better interviewer than George, for instance, one reason being that (like Sawyer) she senses the flow of an interview and listens and reacts to answers. When Wade Henderson of the ACLU responded Tuesday with a generality about proposed sanctions against employers hiring undocumented workers, Shriver told him to be "specific." It was a small thing, but an example of Shriver's good instincts.
The person on "The CBS Morning News" with the best news credentials, though, is the first-class Faith Daniels, who delivers the news as well as co-anchoring the half-hour earlier morning news program with Sawyer.
Daniels won a bunch of reporting awards in local news and is a solid anchor and interviewer. Among network morning show anchors, she is the only one who regularly conducts interviews in addition to reading headlines.
The rosy assessment stops here, though. Despite the personnel change, "The CBS Morning News" remains nothing to get excited about. It is still essentially an echo of NBC's "Today" and ABC's "Good Morning America," the snotty little kid grabbing onto the shirttails of the big boys.
Only once in recent times has it resembled a real news program. That came when it temporarily abandoned its usual format and Bob Schieffer and Washington correspondent Terry Smith virtually took over during the Beirut hostage ordeal.
Otherwise, it is one-third of an early morning triplicate, a show that delivers information mostly in tiny bursts and where the three indispensable words in an interviewer's vocabulary are, "Very quickly now!"
Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite rolled into one wouldn't have a significant impact on such a rigid, calcified format. Can Forrest Sawyer and Maria Shriver? Well, if you take your news in short bursts, you take your progress that way too. And every little bit helps.
There's no guarantee that "The CBS Morning News" won't lose still more rating points with Sawyer and Shriver. At the very least, though, it will gain credibility.