NEW YORK — Barely two months after ABC brought back two veterans of the morning show wars to boost its ailing a.m. offering, CBS on Monday confirmed its own poorly held secret to do the same.
After six months of wooing by network officials, Bryant Gumbel has agreed to once again wake up at 4:10 each morning and co-host CBS' long-suffering "This Morning."
Gumbel will take the reins, the network announced, in a new $30-million open-view digital set overlooking Fifth Avenue and Central Park.
Gumbel's co-host is yet to be determined, but an old colleague will be running the program--Steve Friedman, the former executive producer of NBC's ratings blockbuster "Today" show, which Gumbel co-anchored for 15 years before his high-profile defection to CBS in 1997.
"It's a grind. But it's a program that I'm anxious to do in a format I've had some success in," said Gumbel, who has been a $5-million anchor without a network desk since last year's cancellation of his newsmagazine, "Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel."
"I look forward to joining the fight," he said of the formidable task of pulling CBS out of its perennial No. 3 spot. NBC's "Today" remains the top-ranked morning show, drawing an average 6.1 million viewers; ABC's "Good Morning America" is still at No. 2 but with a 24% gain in viewers--now averaging 3.7 million--14 weeks after Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson slipped into the anchor chairs. "This Morning" lags, drawing in just below 3 million viewers on average.
Gumbel, 50, is well-aware that his performance will be watched closely by more than the crowds striding by the glass walls of the new set at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue. But he is not pressuring himself to perform miracles each 7 to 9 a.m., he said, with a show whose performance has been so weak for so long that nearly three-quarters of the CBS affiliates substitute their local news for its first hour.
"Things in the morning move at a glacial pace," Gumbel said. "You don't take a 30-year record of futility and turn it around in a couple of months. We have a potential to build a program that can be very competitive. But this is a long fight . . . against long-established successful programs, not something where we're going to be able to score a first-round knockout."
CBS officials emphasized that Gumbel's return to the morning beat was not a temporary stop-gap measure, along the lines of ABC's move in February to install Sawyer and Gibson as pinch-hitting anchors of "GMA."
"This is certainly not an interim arrangement like ABC's. This is our new team," said Friedman, 52, whose title will be senior executive producer, after leaving as vice president and station manager of the CBS-owned station in New York.
No Arm-Twisting but a State-of-Art Set
He and Gumbel have a working relationship going back to the early 1970s in Los Angeles. Friedman was a boy-wonder local news producer for KNBC when Gumbel joined that station as a fledgling sports reporter when his hair, in his own description, was "bigger than my ego."
Just a year ago, CBS President Leslie Moonves said that "Bryant would rather be shot in the head than go back to morning television." But Friedman said he and CBS News president Andrew Heyward nonetheless approached the former morning star last October about the pair returning as a team to the a.m.
"He said, 'I have a lot of questions.' But that signaled to me that, 'We have a shot at this guy,' " Friedman recalled. "Then we talked and talked and talked."
"There wasn't any arm-twisting," said Heyward. "If you know Bryant, he's not the kind of person whose arm can be twisted. There was no hard-sell."
One key, all the principals said, was getting a set that could compete with the "Today" show's pioneering open-view money-maker in Rockefeller Center and NBC's planned set in a revitalized Times Square.
"It's become almost the price of admission," Heyward said. CBS' new set will be in the General Motors Building at Trump International Plaza off Fifth Avenue, across from the Plaza Hotel on the southeastern edge of Central Park, where kids flock to the flagship FAO Schwarz toy store and tourists begin horse-and-buggy rides through the park.
"'It's not only the morning [ratings] wars . . . it's the real estate wars in N.Y.!" quipped Friedman. "If one's in Times Square and one's on Rockefeller Center, you can't be on 11th Avenue."
He, like Gumbel, expects to be on-view in more ways than one.
"We're not naive. We know that people will be keeping score," Friedman said. "Every tenth of a ratings point is wrapped in blood. But our primary goal is to get on the field and be competitive with the two other teams. Then we'll take it from there."
Friedman said he and others at CBS are prepared to take their time--possibly until September--finding a co-anchor who has the right chemistry with Gumbel. "No, I will not sit there alone for two hours," said Gumbel.