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'Morning': It's Back To Square One

September 29, 1987|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Conceding ratings defeat, CBS said Monday that it will again overhaul its programming in the competitive 7-to-9 a.m. period--returning control of that slot and the critically panned "The Morning Program" to CBS News.

The move, rumored in the works for several weeks, marks CBS' sixth morning change in three years and is effective Nov. 30.

A CBS spokeswoman said co-hosts Mariette Hartley and Rolland Smith will leave the show then, as will Bob Shanks, producer-creator of the ill-fated venture that was a distant third in the networks' morning ratings wars behind NBC's first-place "Today" show and ABC's "Good Morning America."

"The Morning Program" began Jan. 12 as a 90-minute, entertainment-oriented successor to the two-hour version of the "CBS Morning News" that previously had occupied the 7-to-9 a.m. position. The newscast was moved back to 6-7:30 a.m., with "The Morning Program" airing from 7:30-9 a.m. But where the "CBS Morning News" was produced by the news division, "The Morning Program" was produced by a separate unit reporting to CBS-TV President Tom Leahy.

"The Morning Program" will retain only its title and certain unspecified "successful elements," CBS said. The shift means that CBS News has just under two months to develop a new format and sign new co-anchors.

Officials of the news division had no immediate word on their plans, nor on what role Faith Daniels--now co-anchor of the current 6-to-7:30 a.m version of the "Morning News"--will have in CBS News' new morning effort.

Forrest Sawyer, who had twice served as co-anchor of the "Morning News," quit CBS News last Thursday to consider other TV work.

There has been speculation that Kathleen Sullivan, now nearing the end of her ABC News contract, may sign to co-anchor the new CBS News morning program.

There also are rumors that CBS anchors-correspondents Charles Osgood and Charles Kuralt--the latter a former "Morning News" anchor--are being wooed to do the new morning effort at their network, likewise former CBS correspondent Morton Dean.

It isn't known yet if or how many "Morning Program" staffers will be retained, or how many new staffers will be needed to work on the CBS News version of it.

Nearly 50 "CBS Morning News" personnel were fired in March as part of the 215-job, $30-million CBS News budget cut ordered by CBS President Laurence A. Tisch.

CBS' announcement Monday returns to CBS News the full 6-9 a.m. weekday time period it originally was given in 1982, when the "CBS Morning News" became a full two-hour program, preceded by the "CBS Early Morning News."

However, despite changes of formats and anchors--the latter included the much-publicized nine-month anchor stint of former sportscaster Phyllis George, who had no news background--the "Morning News" remained in third.

In July, 1986, CBS, under pressure from affiliates to be competitive in the mornings and saying it was losing $10 million annually on the then-current version of the "Morning News," announced changes that led to "The Morning Program" in January.

The loss of 90 minutes of daily air time by the news division was sharply criticized by many within CBS News, notably "60 Minutes" essayist Andy Rooney, who blasted the network in his syndicated newspaper column.

"CBS, which used to stand for the Columbia Broadcasting System, no longer stands for anything," he wrote. "They're just corporate initials now."

On Monday, Rooney, like many within CBS News, was delighted that the division was getting the time back. "I think it's good news, very good news, for the news division," he said.

When the new, ceaselessly upbeat "The Morning Program" premiered, it had video "personals" that it has since dropped, a live audience that it still has and a heavy barrage of criticism about the bubbly Hartley and stolid Smith.

It also enjoyed a modest opening-week success in the Nielsens--a 3.5 rating. But the ratings soon went down and stayed down, and producer Shanks often said that this was anticipated and it took time to build a new audience.

In the latest ratings, for the week ending Sept. 20, his show had only a 2 rating, compared to a tie of 4.2 rating points each for its NBC and ABC rivals. Each ratings point now represents 886,000 homes.

According to CBS figures through August, the program has averaged only a 2.5 rating.

Two former presidents of the CBS affiliates boards, in separate interviews, said that they weren't surprised by CBS' action Monday, and were sympathetic about the network's move.

"I think it's a wise decision," said James G. Babb Jr., executive vice president of Jefferson-Pilot Communications, Inc. in Charlotte, N.C. "They made a a reasonable attempt to come up with a good alternative, but it just didn't work."

"I think they honestly gave the damn thing a try, but it just didn't work out," said Joe Carriere, executive vice president of KBIM-TV in Roswell, N.M. He praised CBS for being smart enough to realize that the show had no chance of success in its present form.

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