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CBS aims for a morning news jolt

CBS' complete revamping of 'The Early Show' includes a new title and hosts, Charlie Rose and Gayle King, with a fresh focus on hard news on a wider scale.

November 16, 2011|By James Rainey, Los Angeles Times
  • Erica Hill, left, Gayle King and Charlie Rose of the revamped CBS morning news show.
Erica Hill, left, Gayle King and Charlie Rose of the revamped CBS morning… (Craig Blakenhorn, CBS )

CBS moved Tuesday to reinvigorate its perennially-third-place morning news program, introducing two familiar personalities to help anchor the show and promising a broadcast with less fluff.

The new, yet-to-be-named show, scheduled to debut Jan. 9, will feature PBS late-night oracle Charlie Rose and Gayle King, best known as personal and professional sidekick to Oprah Winfrey. Erica Hill, already host of the network's "The Early Show," will remain in place as the third member of the anchor team.

CBS executives pledged in a news conference at their New York broadcast center that the show will break news, land provocative guests and create a unique new blend, while eschewing longtime staples of a.m. programming, such as cooking demonstrations and the signature weathercaster.

"It will be hard news, it will be real news. But it's not going to be all serious," said Jeff Fager, CBS News chairman and executive producer of the network's "60 Minutes." He said stories could range "from war zones to [financial] markets to pop culture."

The new anchors and news managers repeatedly echoed Fager's sentiment — that they could be serious and substantive in the mode of the revamped "CBS Evening News" and magazine mainstay "60 Minutes," but without being too earnest or dull.

King, who will leave her daytime talk show on Winfrey's OWN network, said the new program wouldn't fit a stereotype that saddles some CBS programs as "highbrow" or "stuffy."

"I just think that there's a way to have fun and be smart and intelligent and learn along the way," King said.

Change is nothing new for the struggling morning show, which has undergone repeated overhauls, including one less than a year ago. The program has been renamed at least five times since the 1980s, while its competitors' brands — NBC's "Today" and ABC's "Good Morning America" — have remained intact for decades.

"Today" routinely pulls in well over 5 million viewers each morning and "GMA," as it's sometimes known, draws roughly half a million less. CBS' "The Early Show," has lagged badly, pulling in about 2.8 million viewers in the season that began in September.

The new CBS bet relies heavily on two personalities, Rose and King, who are markedly different. Rose is known for his sober, in-depth, round-table interviews. King has prospered in the same gauzy pop milieu that has made Winfrey famous and fantastically wealthy.

What the two newcomers have in common is that neither can boast of a substantial audience. A reporter at Tuesday's news conference asked why the pair, who have not been hugely popular separately, will be ratings winners together.

"Because of their abilities," answered Chris Licht, newly appointed executive producer of the program. "Because they as individuals are so talented and capable."

Rose suggested that he will be able to draw big names and exclusive interviews to the show. As word of his new post leaked in recent days, the basset hound-eyed host said a number of newsmakers contacted him and said, "I wanna be at the table. This is where I would like to come."

Russell Peterson, a television news observer and adjunct assistant professor of American Studies at the University of Iowa, said CBS has tried the more-serious-than-thou approach before and failed to boost ratings. A key to success this time, he added, may hinge upon the network's commitment to original reporting — something executives pledged to do.

Rose plans to continue his current show on PBS, so much so that he managed a few "Charlie Rose" plugs during the CBS news conference. He will also remain as a part-time correspondent for the network's "60 Minutes." "I will be able now to paint on two canvases," Rose declared, "in the morning and in the evening."

King said she likely will drop her show on Sirius XM satellite radio. The last episode of "The Gayle King Show" on OWN has been scheduled for Thursday. But King said she would retain her editorial position with Winfrey's O magazine.

The duo and one-time CNN anchor Hill presented themselves at the news conference as a happy, blended family, though a few dissonant notes slipped in. King let on how she had been "bored to tears" as a child watching CBS icon Walter Cronkite. She added, a breath later, how she got "goose bumps" reporting for duty at CBS this week. Rose, meanwhile, got around to full-throated praise for new colleague Hill but started off, awkwardly, by calling her "a surprisingly funny … and interesting person."

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