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What's News Is Old in 'Morning' Format at CBS

December 04, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG

And then--once again--there were three.

One formulaic morning program may be enough. Two are certainly enough. Three are definitely a crowd.

CBS likes crowds.

It has abandoned trying to be different in early morning and returned to being third fiddle, again playing the same tune as NBC's "Today" program and ABC's "Good Morning America."

For CBS, this is an exhumation of old, wormy bones.

It's nice that CBS has returned the entire 7-9 a.m. time slot to its news division. Nice for the division, at least. But initial outings of the new--but stale and creaky--"CBS This Morning" reveal a program trapped in a creative cul-de-sac when it comes to vying with "Today" and "Good Morning America" in the ratings.

"CBS This Morning" is a musty flashback to an era immediately prior to its just-departed "The Morning Program" when CBS cranked out morning anchor teams ranging from Charles Kuralt and Diane Sawyer to Bill Kurtis and Phyllis George in a futile effort to beat the other guys by copying the other guys. Inevitably, the other guys prevailed.

Executive producer Dave Corvo was given relatively little time to prepare "CBS This Morning" for its Monday premiere. So this is merely a preliminary report on a work in progress.

Yet also very clearly, a clone in progress.

The hosts--Kathleen Sullivan and Harry Smith--are new, the look old and cadaverous, hardly the bold, innovative and incisive program that CBS needs to achieve its goal of ratings parity in this time slot.

Here, by intent, obviously, is a program on the cutting edge of the status quo, from synchronized news headlines and weather segments to staccato interviews that compress issues to flatness.

During an interview on Wednesday, for example, Smith asked Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, a Democratic presidential candidate, what advice he would give President Reagan if given 30 seconds alone with him before next week's summit. Simon's reply--mentioning arms control and human rights--made it with 15 seconds to spare, showing his acquired mastery of speaking in TV sound bites.

Even more revealing, though, was the half-minute cap itself, requiring Simon to tailor his ideas to TV's stopwatch, as if advice to a President on critical issues could be apportioned like tiny dewdrops.

"CBS This Morning" has an easy act to follow in "The Morning Program," the network's recent quasi-departure from the standard morning show format that failed both commercially and creatively.

What ailed that test, was not that it was different, but that it wasn't different enough. It straddled the cutting edge, tenuously pointing one foot toward new horizons while digging the other into old turf.

Miscast co-hosts Roland Smith and Mariette Hartley were expected to be Ozzie and Harriet and also do news interviews against a background of comedy and then laughter from a studio audience.

One wishes that CBS would either try something so outrageous in this time period that it can't be defined, or abandon this mimickry and return to what it did long ago--provide a straight, solid, credible newscast that would appeal to a small minority and let ratings come what may.

Of course, fat chance.

In any event, can anyone explain just how Smith and Sullivan are superior to Forrest Sawyer and Maria Shriver, the morning co-hosts dumped when CBS launched "The Morning Program"? Or explain how this latest is superior to the earlier one headed by Sawyer and Shriver?

Smith and Sullivan do have good chemistry and excel at all-important banter. And their supporting cast--especially holdover economics correspondent Robert Krulwich, whose wry and inventive reports have been a bright spot--is good. Krulwich was offered the co-host job and turned it down.

Still on the positive side, a regular "self-portrait" feature got off to a fine start with a piece by Joseph Papp about Joseph Papp ("People say I don't like critics. Don't get me wrong, I despise them"). And the first of movie director Peter Bogdanovich's essays on film-related videos--a celebration of Cary Grant--was a sweet joy.

Given its derivative format, however, the fate of "CBS This Morning" will ultimately rest on the personalities of Smith and Sullivan. Will viewers like them better than NBC's Bryant and Jane or ABC's Charlie and Joan?

Uh oh.

Formerly in the Dallas bureau of CBS News, Smith is smart, amiable and refreshingly unslick, a balding, spectacled Mr. Peepers with authority. You feel when he asks a question or makes a statement, he hasn't just memorized it or read it off a TelePrompTer. He is also a just little bit dry, unfortunately.

Sullivan, whom CBS hired after her ABC contract expired, is at her best when adding "thank you so much" at the end of interviews.

As it now stands, she may be early morning TV's first news coquette (Phyllis George was more the prom queen type), a sort of anchor bunny on a mission of seduction it would appear from her early performance. An example:

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