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Bryant Gumbel returns with a solid, serious morning show

Despite a third-place showing, the ”Today” veteran seems right at home hosting CBS’ new ”Early Show,” says Bruce Fretts

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Bryant Gumbel returns with a solid, serious morning show

It seemed like a sign of imminent disaster. After Bryant Gumbel’s new CBS morning program was unable to secure the proper permits in time to put on a promised Mariah Carey concert during its Nov. 1 debut, NBC’s reigning ”Today” show swooped in and scooped up the pop star. Yet ”The Early Show” didn’t miss a beat. It’s off to a surprisingly smooth start. (Granted, the show finished in third place for its time slot — but it managed to tighten the gap with second place ”Good Morning America.”)

Gumbel rebounded by scoring an opening-day Oval Office interview with President Clinton, and coanchor Jane Clayson proved impressive the following morning with a tough-but-tender grilling of Republican favorite George W. Bush. (She even found a new way to pose the cocaine question: ”How do you make this issue go away?”) With Al Gore and Bill Bradley appearing later in the first week, ”The Early Show” quickly established itself as solid, serious, and news-driven — just like Gumbel himself.

Much has been made of Gumbel’s ”difficult” personality, and he does rub some people all the wrong ways. But I prefer his prickliness to the placid pleasantness of his ”Today” successor, Matt Lauer. Like Regis Philbin, Howard Cosell, and Jack Paar, Gumbel isn’t afraid to show his temper on the air, and it often makes for great, unpredictable TV.

”The Early Show” isn’t without a few flaws. In addition to a couple of minor technical glitches, there’s the continually irksome presence of Mark McEwen — the poor man’s Al Roker — who’s been busted from coanchor back down to weatherman/entertainment reporter. But Gumbel’s probably only keeping him around so that somebody else has to deal with the yahoos who congregate outside CBS’ new street-side studio.

ABC has also constructed a windows-on-Manhattan replica of the ”Today” set for ”GMA,” and its once-sinking ratings have perked up since Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson raced to the rescue. Yet you still get the sense they’re short-timers. Why hasn’t ABC begun to groom logical heirs Jack Ford (formerly of ”Sunday Today”) and Elizabeth Vargas (who was wrongly passed over in favor of Lisa McRee last time)?

”The Early Show” probably won’t catch up with ”Today” or even ”GMA” in the ratings anytime soon, but for the first time in many years, CBS can be proud of its morning program. To paraphrase his old show’s catchphrase, what a difference Bryant Gumbel makes.