”Sh–,” says Bryant Gumbel, staring at the heap of stuff on the desk in his temporary office at CBS. He’s set to host the Emmys Sept. 14, and he’s launching a new prime-time newsmag, Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel, on Oct. 1, so there’s a pile of work to do. Instead, he’s doing this interview. He eyes the stack again. ”Ah, screw it,” he says finally.
”Do you mind if I take off my jacket?” he asks as he plops down on a couch. One can’t help but be taken aback: Bryant Gumbel doesn’t seem like a do-you-mind kind of guy. In his 25-year career at NBC, first as a sportscaster, then as host of Today, Gumbel, 48, developed a reputation for arrogance with his take-no-prisoners, make-no-apologies style.
That reputation may or may not be justified, but one thing Gumbel has never been accused of is being generic. ”Bryant doesn’t leave you with no opinion,” says Matt Lauer, Gumbel’s best friend and successor on Today. ”But how many people want to turn on their TV and walk away with no opinion?”
Not many, CBS is betting. The Eye beat out the other networks to sign Gumbel — one of TV’s best live interviewers — for an estimated $5-7 million per year. ”TV has a lot of very bland characters, so maybe Bryant stands out,” says CBS News prez Andrew Heyward. ”But I think he stands out because he stands for something.” In the following interview, Gumbel stands for — and against — a lot of things.
I’m sure you’ve been watching the coverage of Princess Diana’s death. What’s your take on how the networks have handled it? I don’t want to sit in judgment, but there’s an awful lot of self-indulgence going on. It’s a little over-the-top [when journalists] talk about their time spent with Di. It’s inappropriate. This is not a time to feel terribly proud of what we do for a living.
CBS has been criticized for coming late to the story, carrying pro wrestling while other networks were reporting her death. What’s your reaction? I don’t think anybody at CBS was particularly proud of their response, unless you like watching Randy ”Macho Man” Savage. It’s very hard to say, ”Yeah, we did a terrific job.” I don’t think CBS did, in the first response.
What did you think when CBS first asked you to host the Emmys? [Laughing] I thought, ”Excuse me, do you have the wrong number?” I didn’t want to do a string of bad jokes and groan and say, ”Hey, I didn’t write this.” But they assured me they wanted to do a program with a certain amount of class. So I said yes.
Is it a way to reinvent yourself as a kinder, gentler Bryant? No, I’m a little long in the tooth for that. I’ve never tried to be something I’m not. When I was a sportscaster, I was never a bright sport-coat, bingo-bango-bongo guy. And when I moved over to Today, I never was a stiff, tell-us-about-the-budget-battle guy. I was always very much who I am, for better or worse.