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Why Morning TV Is Getting a Reawakening

Networks: Ratings are prompting some major shake-ups at ABC and CBS, while NBC must find a replacement for departing anchor Bryant Gumbel.

May 02, 1996|JANE HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — In the world of morning television, dramatic change is usually considered as welcome as a cold shower.

"Viewers are vulnerable in the morning," notes one network executive who has researched the 7-9 a.m. time period. "Viewers want hosts they know and like--and segments that fit their morning routine. You'd be surprised how many people take their showers and set their watches by the news and weather on these shows."

Broadcast executives also help set their balance sheets by the morning shows, which are important money-makers for the networks and their affiliated stations. NBC's "Today" show, which has been the top-rated of the three for 41 of the last 45 weeks, is making more than $40 million in profits a year, according to sources.

But hold on to your Mr. Coffee machines: It's going to be a bumpy morning in morning TV. All three network shows are about to get make-overs--CBS and ABC in response to the ratings, NBC because of a personnel change it did not seek.

* Bryant Gumbel has announced that he will leave "Today" at the end of this year, after 15 years as anchor. NBC executives say they don't expect to convince him to continue waking up early every day, although they hope to convince him to remain with the network.

* At third-place CBS, executives are planning a radical revamp of "CBS This Morning" that will give stations considerable time to program local segments within the network-produced show. Anchors Harry Smith and Paula Zahn are expected to be replaced on the new show, which will be detailed to CBS affiliates at their annual meeting later this month and introduced to viewers in August.

* ABC executives, concerned about the dominance of "Today," announced Wednesday that they have signed "Dateline NBC" correspondent Elizabeth Vargas to replace Morton Dean as the news-reader on "Good Morning America" this month. Vargas, who will be seated at a desk on a new, loft-style "GMA" set, will play a larger role on the show than Dean, who now delivers the news from a separate studio.

Meanwhile, Joan Lunden, who has been with "Good Morning America" for 19 years, has begun discussions with ABC on her contract, which expires in February. She is said to want both more prime-time specials and continued prominence on "GMA."

And Charles Gibson, Lunden's co-host since 1987, revealed in an interview with The Times that he has signed an unusual contract that gives him the right to leave "GMA" with six months' notice.

"I want to stay on the show; this is still more fun than it is physically exhausting," Gibson said. "But the hours are difficult. I'll be watching 'Jeopardy!' with my wife at 7 p.m. and realize I should go to bed. . . . It's easier for me to think about a six-month, renewable contract than to think about doing the show every day for the next three years."

Gibson acknowledged that he did have concerns about the addition of a news-reader on the set. "We've always been very conversational on the set; now we'll have to be silent while the news is read," he said. "I don't know yet how that's going to work."

To attract younger viewers, "GMA" recently added several new contributors, including fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger, fitness expert Pat Manochia and technology expert Gina Smith.

Marc Burstein, "GMA's" executive producer, acknowledged that it can be tricky adding new elements to a morning show. "It's a challenge," he said, "bringing in new viewers while at the same time still pleasing the ones who have been loyal to the show for 20 years."

*

But some alterations are in order with "Today" consistently winning the morning battle. From January through April 21, "Today" averaged a 4.8 rating, compared to a 4.4 for "GMA" and a 2.3 for "CBS This Morning." (Each point represents 959,000 households.)

"Today" will face its own challenge in trying to replace Gumbel, who is considered one of the best interviewers in live television. "Bryant is terrific in the job," said executive producer Jeff Zucker. "There's no question the show will be different without him."

Matt Lauer, who is the current news-reader on "Today," is considered the front-runner for Gumbel's job. A dark-horse candidate, sources say, is NBC White House correspondent Brian Williams, who also has been touted as the heir apparent to Tom Brokaw when he retires from "NBC Nightly News."

Lauer, an anchor on WNBC-TV in New York, has developed a following as a "news heart-throb." But some at NBC say he has yet to demonstrate his skills interviewing heads of state and other guests in the hard-news interviews on "Today."

Zucker disagreed: "Matt is very capable, and he has done a great job when he's substituted for Bryant."

Another repercussion of Gumbel's departure may be that Katie Couric could assume more prominence. Gumbel's contract gives him the title of anchor (to Couric's co-anchor) and calls for him to open the show every day. "I think Katie's role might increase somewhat," Zucker said.

*

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