What's striking about the new CBS News morning show is that nothing about it is striking.
The ever-smooth Bryant Gumbel and his co-host, Jane Clayson, are fine and couldn't be friendlier. Mark McEwen remains eternally jovial. Martha Stewart continues making beds and giving great bread. New York still has tall buildings. The big new set is utterly big and new.
"The Early Show" got one of those fawning send-offs Monday from the KCBS earlier show, with talking parrots Sophia Choi and John Overall landing an exclusive live interview by satellite with Gumbel and Clayson just prior to their tape-delayed debut here.
They questioned Gumbel and Clayson with a ruthless fury that peaked when Overall wished them "a great show" while his gushing co-anchor, Choi, threw 500 watts of smile at the camera.
As "The Early Show" enters midweek, though, it's hard envisioning Southland viewers helping upgrade this losing time slot for CBS by switching to Bryant and Jane from NBC's "Today," ABC's "Good Morning America" or the local hee-haws on KTLA and KTTV. Things could change, of course. But why would they? What is the attraction? What is the magnet?
The timing of the CBS show's arrival was reminiscent of MSNBC--the 24-hour cable news partnership between NBC and Microsoft--premiering like a stillborn in 1996, then a few nights later having to cover the crash of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island.
"The Early Show" began life itself just a day after EgyptAir Flight 990 fell into the Atlantic shortly after lifting off from New York. But unlike not-ready-for-prime-time MSNBC, there was no fumbling crash coverage Monday from "The Early Show." Or premature talk of bombs and terrorists, for that matter.
Instead, it went EgyptAir-lite, giving the story about 10 minutes in its opening hour, in contrast to much heavier coverage by its NBC and ABC competitors. And heavier still by the ever-churning 24-hour news channels that were trying--and still are--to advance a story that wasn't advancing.
Otherwise, "The Early Show" has featured much the same mix this week--from the weightless and superficial to the middlebrow--that "Today" and "Good Morning America" have always offered. Like "Today," on which Gumbel was once co-host, for example, "The Early Show" often steps outside to banter with the masses and do comedy. As in McEwen mixing with some circus-type performers who he said were "juggling their hearts out."
Tuesday brought a nice package on gun control, the worthy opening to a three-part series on fertility and a tender tribute to late pro football great Walter Payton.
"The Early Show" is making its centerpiece weeklong interviews with major political figures. Presidential candidates were on the slab for Tuesday through Friday. But starting the series was a taped interview with President Clinton, during which Gumbel did a better job questioning than the interviewee did answering.
On Tuesday, Clayson nervously interviewed GOP front-runner George W. Bush, barely getting out the first question about his enormous campaign coffers, a lob he drove right out of the park. As he did the entire interview, including the now obligatory question about drugs.
Neither Clinton nor Bush said anything worthy of even a minuscule headline, but in the curious way television celebrates process over content, "The Early Show" was able to use their appearances as promotional fodder. The headline becoming their participation.
If anything, Bush's general affability was a sort of metaphor for the pastel pleasantness of "The Early Show." Watching wouldn't stimulate or challenge you, but it wouldn't hurt you either. You had the feeling, in fact, that the show was striving to do just what Bush said he wanted to do as president: "Lead America to a more optimistic tomorrow."
"The Early Show" also shares with its NBC and ABC counterparts a general promotional tone that has characterized these shows since their inception.
Outside "The Early Show" studio in the General Motors Building at Trump International Plaza, for example, Gumbel and Clayson were greeted Monday by Donald Trump, who is seeking the Reform Party nomination for president. As Gumbel shot him a few perfunctory questions, Clayson was caught between them, and stood there like a stick of furniture. Not to worry, for it was meant to be Trump's moment.
And who should give viewers a tour of the "neighborhood" Monday--in a pedestrian comedy bit--but Kevin James, star of the CBS sitcom "The King of Queens."
On Tuesday, moreover, Clayson went outside to interview a slew of "Bond Girls," whose appearance coincided with the release of James Bond films as a video package. And later she joined the author of a how-to tome on housekeeping in going over "some of the things that are in your book."
There was McEwen Monday, by the way, on the set with Mel Gibson, who had a movie to promote. Not that "The Early Show" didn't have company in this arena, for there was Diane Sawyer on "Good Morning America" Monday, interviewing Chris O'Donnell about his new movie. And there on "Today" was Mariah Carey giving a street concert--the one she was originally set to perform on "The Early Show"--to promote the release of her new album.
So many projects to advertise, so few morning shows on which to advertise them. Yet all of them juggling their hearts out.