Despite its perpetual No. 3 status among network morning programs, CBS’ ”The Early Show” has earned some bragging rights since its reincarnation 2 1/2 years ago: It scored exclusive interviews with the last person to see Chandra Levy alive and the moms of those naval officers who went down in a spy plane in China. Unfortunately, all the scoops in the world can’t make up for the one good get that continues to elude the ”Today” show rival—a host people want to wake up to. Bryant Gumbel wasn’t it; the show’s stagnant viewership — which has stalled at an anemic 2.6 million — bears that out. And cohost Jane Clayson hasn’t proved to be enough of a morning glory to lure new viewers. Bottom line? ”The audience doesn’t care about the people presenting the show,” says a chief competitor.
And that frustrates CBS News president Andrew Heyward to no end. ”What the program has done very well is make us credible and competitive in the news and booking wars,” he says. ”But being able to cover the news is not enough.” Still, the groundwork has been laid. Thanks to former ”Today” executive producer Steve Friedman and Gumbel, The Early Show now gets enough respect to warrant appearances from White House newsmakers and drop-bys from such A-list Hollywood talent as Tom Cruise (he’ll shill for Minority Report on the show this month).
Now, if only CBS can discover how to make it a regular stop for viewers. With Gumbel gone and a new senior exec producer in place (Friedman’s been replaced by Michael Bass, also a Today veteran and ex-protégé of NBC maestro Jeff Zucker), it’s time for another Eye-opening makeover. And even Zucker concedes Bass is the right man for the job: ”Michael’s got more experience in morning TV than anybody,” he says.