CBS' "The Morning Program," the week-old Monday-through-Friday replacement for the beleaguered "CBS Morning News," will successfully find its audience by mid-year, its executive producer predicts.
What's more, CBS' commitment to the show "is open-ended," Bob Shanks assured, speaking Friday before TV critics gathered at the Sheraton Hotel in Redondo Beach.
"I may get a call 13 weeks from now saying 'pack up and get out of here,' but that's not my sense of it," Shanks said. At a recent meeting with CBS chairman William Paley, he said, he was told to "fine-tune" the show and "keep on doing what you're doing."
Shanks, appearing alongside the show's stars, Mariette Hartley and Rolland Smith, said: "I think within three to six months the show will be very comfortable and people will begin to accept it and it won't be so startling to see a comedian in the morning."
The latter comment referred to the presence of comic Bob Saget on the 7:30-to-9 a.m. show and the stand-up comedy routines performed by other comedians in the first half hour. Saget, along with videotaped "personals" and a live studio audience, have set "The Morning Program" distinctly apart from its predecessor as well as from its competition, ABC's "Good Morning America" and NBC's "Today."
The perceived softness has made "The Morning Program" a tough sell with critics, too, but Shanks and company gamely faced the press on the next-to-last day of the two-week-long series of network presentations.
Hartley had given blood on the show that morning and seemed ready to have the critics go after more. Responding to charges that she repeatedly interrupted co-host Smith during Week One, she said, "He steps on me as much as I do on him, isn't that right, Rolland?"
"Absolutely," Smith readily replied. "As much as I possibly can."
The trio acknowledged some mistakes. Hartley said that, at Shanks' suggestion, she will back off from her role as "the Gracie Allen of sports," a reference to her exaggerated non-knowledge of football during an interview with former Oakland Raiders coach John Madden and Pat Summerall, both of whom will be Super Bowl sportscasters.
Shanks, for his part, admitted that, in his nervousness about the new show, he had booked too many guests, forcing many of the interview segments to be overly brief. "I take full blame for that," he said. "We are loosening the format so that doesn't happen again."
But Shanks defended some of the show's perceived gaffes with a sweeping call for "some reality on TV." He said he hopes the show will have some moments "when you're sitting at home and say, 'I can't believe I saw that!' "
Shanks and Smith, a former news anchor at the CBS-owned New York station, WCBS, also insisted that the presence of a studio audience doesn't compromise their ability to present newsworthy interviews. They both referred to Friday morning's interview with David Jacobsen, whose 17 months of captivity in Lebanon ended last November, and his son, Eric. "The audience didn't hoot and holler," Shanks pointed out.
He added that when breaking news warrants, the telecast will shift to coverage by CBS' news division, which relinquished control of the morning slot when low ratings forced the morning news effort off the air after 23 years.
Shanks, a veteran producer who helped launch "Good Morning America" and "20/20" at ABC, cleverly defused some of the negative reviews of "The Morning Program" by reading two typically scathing critiques. They lambasted everything from the "corny and dull" content to the "impractical central set" to the "self-conscious" hosts.
Shanks then revealed that the two reviews weren't about "The Morning Program" at all. They were written in 1975 about "Good Morning America," now in its 12th year, and in 1952 at the start of "Today." Unkind reviews, he noted, "are in the grand tradition" of morning shows, even the long-lasting ones.