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A Deep Look in His 'Eye'

Television: Bryant Gumbel gets ready to enter the crowded newsmagazine field with a show incorporating live interviews and striving to take the high road.

September 30, 1997|JANE HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — For a man who has a $7-million-a-year contract and a new prime-time newsmagazine riding on his shoulders, Bryant Gumbel looks pretty relaxed. He's wearing a hip tweed sports jacket, a polo shirt and shoes with no socks while he works in a temporary office down the hall from "60 Minutes."

"When I came over here, I wore a coat and tie for five days," says Gumbel, who left NBC for CBS this summer after hosting the "Today" show for 15 years. "Then suddenly I realized, I'm not on the air every day--I can dress the way I want."

He also can do his new series the way he wants, at least until the TV critics and the network ratings mavens weigh in. Despite his casual manner, Gumbel is earnest about the kind of program he wants "Public Eye," which debuts Wednesday night, to be.

"I think there are enough very good, very viable stories to be done without having to chase down the latest celebrity who picked up a transvestite, or the three moms who got together and butchered a local rapist," Gumbel says. "I'm not belittling shows that do sensational stories; I simply believe that's a crowded field, and we'd like to carve out another place for ourselves."

Gumbel's declaration that his staff won't be "bottom-feeders" has raised eyebrows at some of the nine other prime-time newsmagazines on the air this fall. "Wait till he gets on the air and has to draw an audience every week," said one cynical newsmagazine producer.

"I'm not saying we're going to reinvent the wheel," Gumbel insists. "I just question the assumption that the low-end stuff works and the high-end stuff doesn't. . . . '60 Minutes' certainly belies that."

One of the ways that Gumbel hopes to differentiate his show is with live interviews, something for which he is known from all those years of doing "Today" live. "Going live injects a certain amount of danger into the newsmagazine format," he says. (The program will only be live in the Eastern and Central time zones; it will be tape-delayed for broadcast on the West Coast.)

For the premiere, Gumbel has landed the first TV interview with Gene McKinney, the sergeant major of the Army who has been accused of sexual misconduct. Gumbel talked with McKinney and others involved in the story for a taped report; and McKinney and his wife will react to the piece in a live segment.

The other segments in the first show include a report by correspondent Peter Van Sant on the famine in North Korea and a story by correspondent Maggie Cooper about a new medical technique that may allow parents to choose the gender of their unborn child.

In addition to Van Sant and Cooper, the correspondents for "Public Eye" will include veteran "48 Hours" correspondent Bernard Goldberg and two relative newcomers to the network, former MTV News reporter Alison Stewart and Derek McGinty, a former public-radio talk-show host in Washington. Both Stewart and McGinty had worked on CBS' experimental newsmagazine, "Coast to Coast," with producer Michael Rubin, who is the executive producer of "Public Eye."

Carol Marin, who quit her anchor job at WMAQ-TV in Chicago last May to protest the station's hiring of talk-show host Jerry Springer as a commentator, also will contribute occasional reports.

The eclectic mix, Gumbel says, is aimed at drawing on reporters with "different passions"--and attracting some younger viewers than those CBS traditionally draws.

"Public Eye" will go after some celebrity interviews, although Gumbel was not known for masking his disinterest on the "Today" show when a half-awake actor phoned in the promotion of his latest movie.

"I love celebrities who really feel something and have something to say," Gumbel says. "I don't like it when somebody shows up to promote their movie, and they're tired and bored and don't want to be there. . . . I like things that are real and spontaneous. If you're a complete unknown and you've spent two years writing a book about green chairs, and you're passionate about it, I'm all ears."

Gumbel's self-confidence sometimes has struck viewers and TV writers as arrogance. The 49-year-old anchor believes that there may be unconscious racism underlying the way that he sometimes has been perceived. A case in point, he says, was the negative reaction of his recent hosting of the Emmy Awards telecast, where the newsman told a few jokes but basically played it straight. One critic wrote that Gumbel seemed pompous; another, that he looked like a maitre d'.

"I don't know of any successful African American man who's succeeded on television--from Flip Wilson to Bill Cosby--who hasn't been accused of being arrogant," Gumbel says. "If a black guy is intelligent, he's considered pompous. I have no idea how what I did at the Emmys could have struck anyone as pompous. I came out, did some jokes about myself, said what we were going to do for the evening and got off. And what was I supposed to wear besides a tux?

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