NEW YORK — After nearly two decades in morning television, Bryant Gumbel quit Thursday as co-anchor of CBS' third-place "The Early Show," saying he wants to do something else with his life.
Gumbel's contract with CBS expires in May and negotiations hadn't been going smoothly, leading to increasing speculation in recent weeks that he might leave.
No replacement was named and the anchor's departure date has yet to be set, but the show is expected to continue with its current format. "I don't anticipate a radical redesign of the program," CBS News President Andrew Heyward said.
The morning program, launched 21/2 years ago on the Viacom Inc.-owned network, remains well behind General Electric Co. unit NBC's "Today" show and "Good Morning America," on Walt Disney Co.'s ABC, in the ratings race.
CBS has long struggled in the morning time slots, where change in viewing patterns is slow. The program has benefited from a synergistic relationship with CBS' hit "Survivor," as the booted contestants came on each week to talk about their experiences. Profit has jumped to an estimated $50million, up from about $8million to $10million.
Still, the show, which averaged 2.7 million viewers in the first quarter of 2002, draws less than half the audience of 6.4 million watching ratings leader "Today" and is well below the 4.8 million averaged by "Good Morning America." Both also bring in substantially higher profits--an estimated $250 million in the case of "Today," which runs for three hours, compared with two for both CBS and ABC. The morning has become more important for the networks as the economics of prime-time television become more challenging.
Heyward nevertheless stressed that it was Gumbel's decision to move on and thanked the anchor for helping make CBS more competitive in the morning. Pointing to Gumbel's pending second marriage, Heyward said, "I take him at his word that he wants to start a new chapter in life.... It's an intense, demanding existence."
"Bryant put this show on the map," said Steve Friedman, the show's senior executive producer who previously worked with Gumbel at "Today," where Gumbel anchored for 15 years. Friedman said he believes "there were circumstances that came up in the negotiations that led Bryant to believe it wasn't worth it, not money-wise, but time-wise, commitment-wise. He only knows one way to do it, and that's 100%."
Gumbel, 53, is expected to continue to anchor HBO's "Real Sports." He wasn't available for comment and declined to discuss his plans, saying in a statement, "As I prepare to begin a new chapter in my personal life, it makes sense to me to turn the page on my professional life as well. Morning television has been a wonderful experience for me, but there are other interests that I'm eager to pursue."
Gumbel joined CBS in 1997, but the prime-time magazine built around him, "Public Eye," never clicked. CBS--paying him about $5million a year--pushed him to return to mornings, surrounded by a new $30-million street-side studio in New York and paired with co-host Jane Clayson.
Yet despite his reputation as a brilliant interviewer and success at "Today," Gumbel's morning viewers didn't really seek him out again. For every viewer who appreciated his interviewing skills, there were others who found his style too prickly. Many CBS affiliate station managers were unhappy with him in the job, feeling that the show would never grow beyond third place.
Gumbel's exit gives CBS an opportunity to improve the show's fortunes, but it will be a difficult opening to exploit. CBS will be hard-pressed to find any star of his stature to fill the post, which could mean a slow rebuilding process. "There's a lot of work ahead," Friedman said.
Moreover, the morning competition has gotten more complex in the last six months as Fox News Channel and CNN, with new anchor Paula Zahn, have made gains.
"I think it is an opportunity if CBS chooses to seize it," said "GMA" executive producer Shelley Ross, who called Gumbel "one of the great interviewers" in the business. "Once they decide on someone there'll be the excitement and a flurry of publicity. Then it'll settle back and they'll be in a rebuilding phase."
NBC declined to comment.
Clayson's contract is up in the fall. Executives didn't provide any concrete assurances that she would remain with the program, but they are likely to want some consistency. "We're not contemplating wholesale changes based on Bryant's departure," Heyward said.
Clayson pointed out that the show's ratings have steadily improved. "In a business where viewers' habits change at a glacial pace, that's pretty good," she said, adding, "I look forward to being a part of the show, whoever sits next to me."
Heyward said it was too early to talk about a short list of replacements, but a number of names were being floated anyway. The network already had put out feelers to frequent substitute anchor Jim Nantz, a CBS Sports commentator, industry executives said, but it's unlikely he's interested.
CBS News' Russ Mitchell and game show host Tom Bergeron also have substituted. Other names included correspondent Jon Frankel; Antonio Mora, who just left as "Good Morning America's" news reader for an anchor job at CBS' Chicago station; and Jack Ford, who recently left ABC when a "GMA" post didn't come through. Some also think CBS could turn to White House correspondent John Roberts, long considered a possible heir to Dan Rather's evening news chair.
"This would be a good place to groom someone to be Dan's replacement," said news consultant Andrew Tyndall, who monitors the network newscasts. He added that CBS, having failed with a big star in Gumbel, might try to "promote from within and pocket the difference in salary."
Gumbel is expected to work out the timing of his departure in the next week.