NEW YORK — With CBS having announced a Jan. 12 debut for its new bifurcated morning program, Thursday marked the return of what passes for normal in the networks' continuing dawn tussle for morning viewers.
Phil Beuth, ABC's vice president in charge of "Good Morning America," pondered possible successors to David Hartman, who in February will step down as the star of a show he has hosted ever since it began in 1975.
Steve Friedman, executive producer of NBC's "Today" show, which has wrested the ratings lead from "Good Morning America," engaged in his usual morning exercise--needling rivals, in this case the new CBS effort.
And Bob Shanks, the former ABC executive who helped create "Good Morning America" and its success, continued working on plans for "The Morning Program."
That is his half of the new CBS venture scheduled to replace the perennially third-rated, 23-year-old "CBS Morning News."
The other half, emphasizing "hard news," will be produced by CBS News, still be called the "CBS Morning News" and air from 6 to 7:30 a.m., with 7:30-9 a.m. occupied by Shanks' "Morning Program."
Shanks' show is in the category of "info-tainment," meaning it will offer a light mix of chat, features and celebrity interviews. It already has drawn a certain amount of attention, and not just because two comedians are among its regulars.
Co-anchored by actress Mariette Hartley and former New York anchorman Rolland Smith, it will be done before a live studio audience--the only network morning program to do so.
"It'll be very interesting to see what kind of people they can get out of the streets of New York that early in the morning to watch a TV show," mused Friedman of "Today."
"Actually," he suggested, "they could fill the audience with everybody who's worked on the 'Morning News' in the last 35 years."
Shanks, who said he expects such gibes, conceded that getting a live audience at dawn may prove difficult initially, "but I don't think there'll be any problem after that."
He was interviewed late Wednesday after CBS announced the start date of its latest effort to be competitive at reveille.
His part of the effort will fill what amounts to two-thirds of prime morning time that CBS News alone once owned. CBS affiliates have made clear their impatience for a morning broadcast that gets ratings.
(The latest Nielsens show the lame-duck "CBS Morning News" still deep in the cellar. It averaged a 3.0 rating last week, ABC's show a 4.7 and NBC's "Today" a 5.6. Each ratings point represents 874,000 homes.)
The affiliates' impatience puts Shanks in the hot seat. But he proposed--via his agent--putting himself there when the "CBS Morning News" was in fresh turmoil last summer.
Susan Winston, another former "Good Morning America" executive, had been hired in May. Introduced to affiliates as sort of a morning-show messiah, she had worked hard to plan a winning broadcast that she said would air in September.
But she quit in August, saying that CBS had no clear vision of what it wanted. Then CBS said it was dropping its morning news program and replacing it with two shows, one a no-nonsense newscast, the other a program of lighter, entertainment-oriented fare.
Shanks said he had his agent call Van Gordon Sauter, who subsequently hired him to create the latter, lighter show. Sauter, at the time both president of CBS News and an executive vice president of the CBS Broadcast Group, resigned Sept. 11 amid a top-level shakeup at CBS.
"I'd watched the program all summer and read about all the trouble it was having, and I hated to see that happen--CBS always was the Tiffany of networks and all that," said Shanks, 53, a two-time Emmy award winner.
Some critics had accused the program of being too light in tone and content. But Shanks found it too "somber" for the sort of audience it was supposed to attract in the morning.
"That doesn't mean you giggle your way through Chernobyl or things like that," he said. "But there is a time to be serious and a time to lighten up." He emphasized that he thought the "Morning News" had done much quality work.
"But if a tree falls in the forest and nobody's there to hear it, are you communicating?"
Shanks insisted that his new program's comedic regulars--Mark McEwan and Bob Saget, who will work, respectively, as weatherman and as announcer--have much depth and education and are more than mere merry-makers.
But he conceded that their presence and a live audience as part of the show will doubtless cause jokes and criticism. Yes, he said, there may even be suggestions that the next regular will be Sybil the Soothsayer, a character who appeared as part of a network newscast in Paddy Chayefsky's black-humor movie about television, "Network."
"I'm ready for those lumps," said Shanks, whose program is produced by the entertainment side of CBS, not its news division. "But I think the careful viewer will understand that we'll be somewhat more sterling than that.