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'Cbs Morning News' Revamp Is Promised

May 23, 1986|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

Susan Winston, who has been working on ways to increase the audience of the third-in-ratings "CBS Morning News," put it bluntly: "I was brought to the 'Morning News' to get ratings. It's that simple. I'll do whatever it takes to make it happen."

And, in a later statement also likely to raise eyebrows of traditionalists at the House of Edward R. Murrow, she said that "while the institution of CBS News is a strong cornerstone, it is not enough" to make the "Morning News" a contender.

Doubtless aware that wags say the program has had more face lifts than a Beverly Hills matron, she nonetheless said that yet another new version of it will air in September. But she didn't say if current co-anchors Forrest Sawyer and Maria Shriver will stay.

Thus did Winston--she was executive producer of ABC Entertainment's "Good Morning America" when it was first in ratings over NBC News' "Today Show"--make her inaugural public apearance Wednesday before executives of CBS' 204 affiliated stations.

Her forum was the closing session of the annual CBS affiliates convention at the Plitt Theater in Century City. She was interrupted several times by applause, indicating the deep yearning by station officials for a competitive morning program, a yearning they made clear to CBS executives in a closed-door meeting on Monday.

She was introduced by the man who hired her, CBS News President Van Gordon Sauter, who said that her five "Good Morning America" years "were marked by success, innovation and rapid adjustments to a changing marketplace."

The conventioneers also heard brief remarks by "CBS Evening News" anchor Dan Rather; Ed Bradley and Diane Sawyer of "60 Minutes"; Charles Osgood and Charles Kuralt, and Meredith Viera and Jane Wallace of CBS News' jazzy new "West 57th" series.

But the most dramatic moments came in the blunt address by Winston, who last year briefly worked at ABC News, helping create a pilot program for a proposed series called "Seven Days." ABC brass shelved the project after seeing the pilot.

(Her last TV venture was the syndicated talk-show series, "America," which she left in November and which co-starred McLean Stevenson and Sarah Purcell. Pummelled by critics, the show premiered in September but died four months later.

(An ironic factor in its demise was its cancellation by four CBS-owned stations, including KCBS-TV in Los Angeles.)

On the job at CBS News since May 5 as executive director of morning news planning but now in effect running the "CBS Morning News," Winston didn't discuss that program's news content.

But having said that the institution of CBS News is not enough to make the program competitive, she also said that success won't come, either, by copying NBC's resurgent, currently first-rated "Today" or the ABC show she ran from 1981 to 1984.

"Morning programs have become clones of one another, television by formula, old and trite formats that viewers are getting tired of," she said. "It's about time somebody came up with a new idea. My job is to make sure that the somebody who does is CBS."

That drew an eight-second round of applause.

"I don't have all the answers yet," she continued. "But I do know this. The morning sun does not rise in New York, set in Los Angeles, and skip everything in between. You'd never know it, though, from what you see on morning television."

CBS' morning program "should not sit pat in New York," she said. She declared that "it's time to take television to people where they live, to originate live from all over the country," and on a regular basis, not just during key ratings periods.

Last November, Johnathan Rodgers, an experienced newsman then serving as executive producer of the "Morning News" (he now runs CBS-owned WBBM-TV in Chicago), said he regarded it "as more of a hard news broadcast than a soft news program."

However, Winston, who has no journalistic background, gave no indication Wednesday of whether she shares Rodgers' view or if she thinks the emphasis should be on soft news segments, which usually dwell more on light features, consumer news and celebrity interviews than the state of the Republic or the world.

Other than saying that the "Morning News" should get out and visit the nation more often, she gave no hint of what will be the look of the program's newest incarnation.

However, she did note early in her speech that while she's new to CBS News, "I'm not exactly a newcomer to morning television. I have some knowledge of what appeals to the morning audience and what it takes to compete in the (morning) time period."

Later in her remarks, she told the convention that "right now, we don't need just a good idea. We need the right idea, and the right combination of people, format and promotion to give that idea life. I believe that idea is on our drawing board right now.

"By July 15, I will report back to you on the details. By September, a new morning broadcast will be on the air," she said, adding:

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