NEW YORK — "We really have to be distinctive," says Kathleen Sullivan. However, says Harry Smith, her partner, "we're not going to re-invent the morning format. It's just up to us to do it differently. . . ."
"I wish for them time," says Bob Shanks, whose bouncy "The Morning Program" ended Friday after 11 months as a distant third in network morning ratings and set the stage for a new beginning by CBS News.
The new beginning, starting today, is "CBS This Morning," co-anchored by Sullivan and Smith. It represents CBS News' latest effort to compete in the network reveille races since it began with a half hour in 1963.
"CBS This Morning" is preceded by a new version of the "CBS Morning News" with Faith Daniels and CBS' poet-anchor Charles Osgood.
The newcomer reclaims for the news division the key 7 a.m.-9 a.m. time period it first got in 1982, when the "CBS Morning News" went into head-to-head battle with NBC's "Today" and ABC's "Good Morning America."
Save for a brief period, CBS News' morning efforts have always been third in ratings. Prodded last year by affiliates to come up with anything that might improve matters, CBS brass took the 7:30 a.m-9 a.m. daily slot away from the news division and gave it to "The Morning Program," produced by a non-news unit headed by Shanks.
That didn't work, either.
The idea of "Program," co-hosted by Mariette Hartley and Rolland Smith, was to counter-program against NBC and ABC offerings with a heavy emphasis on weather, comedy, show-biz news, and health, financial and fashion segments.
The rival programs had a lot of news, and they otherwise "already looked pretty much alike," says Shanks, who helped create "Good Morning America." His goal was to create an alternative, an approach he still defends.
He also sought, he says, to build a new audience--consisting primarily of women from 18 to 35--and to also attract those who didn't usually watch TV; he didn't aim at luring away the regular patrons of "Today" and "Good Morning America."
And now, for something completely different.
David Corvo, executive producer of "CBS This Morning," says he wants to reclaim the audience that had regularly watched the various incarnations of the "CBS Morning News."
"I think we'll have to earn back a lot of viewers," he says. That's not all he has in mind: "We have to go after the viewers who are watching 'Today' and 'Good Morning America.'
"I'm not going after the people who are not watching television. We want to go after the people who are watching and say, 'Hey, try us. We think we can do it better.' "
Sullivan was hired for the program when her anchor contract at ABC expired in September. Then, after Canadian anchorman Peter Mansbridge said "money isn't everything, but Canada is," and rejected a CBS offer, Harry Smith, CBS' correspondent in Dallas, became Sullivan's partner in dawn.
To date, the "CBS This Morning" cast includes Jim Lampley, who, in addition to his KCBS-TV sports chores in Los Angeles, will offer the only daily sports report on a network morning program airing Mondays through Fridays.
Other regulars: weatherman Mark McEwen, a holdover from the "Morning Program" troupe; economics explainer Robert Krulwich; business reporter Ken Prewitt; health reporter Dr. Robert Arnot and consumer reporter Erin Moriarty. Film director Peter Bogdanovich will tout good films on videocassette on Fridays.
Corvo still is looking for a West Coast correspondent for the new program, a pop culture critic, and might hire a few semi-regular essayists.
The program's approach, he says, will be to emphasize top stories and topical news in the first hour and less urgent matters in the second.
"As we go through the morning," he says, "it's like going back through a morning newspaper into the other areas--economics, politics, sports, back through health, medicine, consumer issues, family issues and popular culture."
There also will be celebrity interviews, he says, but "I don't think we'll do a lot of them at the beginning--because they don't know we're on the air."
Sullivan, when asked about actors who insist on talking about their demanding roles, gave an answer that might endear her to civilians, if not press agents. She vowed never to be the sort of interviewer who blinks her eyes and inquires: "Was that a stretch for you?"