The slow death of the morning shows -- A former producer of CBS's early show analyzes what's going on in the a.m.

When this magazine recently offered readers a chance to express their opinions on the state of NBC’s Today show, the response was overwhelming. In just three weeks, Entertainment Weekly received more than 3,100 postcards on the subject. Many readers wanted Jane Pauley to return to Today, and most of those readers, not surprisingly, wanted NBC to fire Deborah Norville, Pauley’s successor. A lot of voters wanted Bryant Gumbel gone and Willard Scott installed as host.

Obviously, something’s up in the morning. Feelings run deep about a.m. TV. This is a time of major change in morning television. In addition to the new co-anchor at Today, there is a new co-anchor (Paula Zahn) on CBS This Morning. Both shows also have executive producers who weren’t on staff a year ago.

Ratings also have changed. After three years as the top-rated morning show, Today has fallen by about 1 million viewers in the last year and is now No. 2, behind ABC’s Good Morning America.

Complicating the picture is a range of options not available a decade ago: 24-hour news on cable television; other cable channels devoted to sports, weather, and financial news; and morning news programs on local stations.

Entertainment Weekly asked Jon Katz, a former producer of CBS’ morning show, to analyze what’s happening now on morning television and what’s ahead.

The Today show began its painful public slide from the mountaintop more than a year ago, when Bryant Gumbel’s assault-by-memo on Willard Scott leaked, then gushed. By January of this year, when Deborah Norville replaced Jane Pauley, the illusion — vital in the morning — of a devoted family starting its day sipping coffee and chatting on designer couches had completely unraveled. These mornings, Willard Scott seems to have abandoned the New York studio, skulking off instead to Disney World construction sites and, on one recent day, the Dogwood Arts Festival in Knoxville, Tenn. And Gumbel has had to submit to America’s ultimate ritual of redemption and resurrection: presenting a new, humble Gumbel to Barbara Walters. ”Yeah,” he told her softly on the March 16 20/20, ”I miss Jane.”

Viewers don’t like to see their TV families fall apart in public, and Today has become a family therapist’s nightmare, losing 20 percent of its viewers since the Gumbel memo and ceding first place to ABC’s Good Morning America, although it is still comfortably ahead of CBS.

In fact, much of morning television has become an ongoing Kabuki drama. In February, CBS took advantage of the camouflage provided by Today‘s trauma, replacing CBS This Morning co-anchor Kathleen Sullivan with ABC import Paula Zahn. After only three years together, Charles Gibson and Joan Lunden of Good Morning America have by default become the Ozzie and Harriet of morning TV.

”People have to feel as comfortable watching as they want to feel in their own homes,” a network executive told me when I produced the CBS Morning News in 1983 and 1984 (with Bill Kurtis and Diane Sawyer as co-anchors, followed by Phyllis George). ”They have to see the husband of the wife that they would want to be married to — they have to see great chemistry.”

What they’re seeing now is great soap opera, but the hijinks and hoopla have obscured the real questions surrounding morning television: Is it any good? Do we need it? Can it survive the revolutions in technology, programming, and viewer lifestyles encircling all network programming? Is there room for three nearly identical morning shows?

In the morning, the networks’ news shows now contend with CNN, which reached 32 million homes in 1985 and a robust 54 million last year, and which can be flicked on whenever viewers feel information-hungry, not just when the networks choose to air news broadcasts. CNN, in fact, has made the very idea of a scheduled newscast seem obsolete and confining.

So have other kinds of news programming. For business news, viewers can turn to cable’s Financial News Network or CNBC. People getting up in the morning can turn on the Weather Channel to figure out what to wear, or switch on one of the country’s dozens of all-news radio stations. In Sacramento, a television station goes on the air with news from 3 to 7 a.m. In New York, WNYW (a Fox station) produces the two-year-old Good Day New York, the first successful local show of its kind. GDNY serves up local news, weather, and a traffic report; lately, it has been beating CBS and tying NBC in the ratings from 7 to 9 a.m. Long Island has its own cable news channel, as does New Jersey.

TV programming isn’t the only thing that has changed since the Today show made its debut in 1952. The way people live has, too. When the networks’ morning broadcast formats were crystallized in the ’70s by the success of Good Morning America (compatible anchor couple, jolly against warm, informal studio backdrops), television might as well have come from a different century. Dad could hear the headlines and catch a glimpse of the Cabinet secretary of the day while shaving, then head off for work. Mom made the kids’ lunches, then sat down with a cup of coffee to watch features on staying slim or buying smart, and to see the hot film star of the month plug his latest.

But now many families are too busy to sit down with Harry and Paula, Charlie and Joan, or Bryant and Deborah in the morning. In 1970, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 43.3 percent of American women worked. In 1989, the figure reached 57.4 percent.

Since the morning broadcasts never have attracted more than a fraction of the viewers available-the three networks’ morning broadcasts combined add up to about a third of the people watching The Cosby Show — executives thought their growth potential to be enormous.

But despite millions of dollars in promotion, these optimistic notions may no longer hold up. Competition and changing life- styles undoubtedly are two reasons network-morning-show ratings are stagnant and, in some respects, down. In 1970, there was only one two-hour morning show — Today — and it had 3 million viewers. In 1980, there were three morning broadcasts and they attracted about 12.5 million viewers. Now, the number of people watching morning programs is almost exactly what it was a decade ago — 12.5 million — despite an increase in the number of households with TVs.

Even though prime-time TV’s portrayals of family life have evolved from The Brady Bunch to Roseanne, network executives don’t seem to have noticed how audiences’ morning habits have changed. If they have, they seem unable or unwilling to respond.

Morning TV’s primary responses have been: first, order enough new furniture, paintings, flowers, and bookcases to furnish a small suburb, and second, hire and fire a stream of female anchors.

These impulses stem from volumes of market research interpreted to mean that viewers want the morning programs hosted by dignified men and subordinate but friendly women in soothing living-room environments presenting an endless flow of famous faces and useful consumer segments. People outside media organizations may scratch their heads at such regimented thinking, wondering why institutions stuffed with such smart people aren’t coming up with new ideas.

Though the three broadcasts continually struggle to market themselves as different from one another (CBS This Morning tries to be hipper, Today cooler, GMA warmer), they seem willing only to claim individuality, not to risk being different.

Whatever they say publicly about their broadcasts, morning television producers have always defined the real battle as being over celebrities. Morning television tied itself to the celebrity culture boom of the ’70s, when Americans couldn’t seem to read or see enough about their favorite TV, movie, and rock stars. GMA, Today, and CBS This Morning employ armies of ”bookers” — fearsome Ninja producers — who work day and night to woo the biggest names onto their broadcasts, often promising lots of air time, even a week-long series of interviews, in exchange for exclusive appearances to tout a new TV show, film, or book.

A partial list for one recent week — fewer than half of the famous faces booked — includes director David Lynch and star Kyle MacLachlan promoting the TV series Twin Peaks, Johnny Depp pushing the movie Cry-Baby, Richard Gere hustling for Pretty Woman, George Will for his new baseball book, Peter O’Toole his TV movie, Dixie Carter her new singing act, Willie Nelson his Farm Aid concert, Shana Alexander her new book on Bess Myerson, Rob Lowe his new movie.

Morning programs seem oblivious to the fact that television now offers numerous outlets for viewers to see huckstering stars. They’re hard to avoid. Syndicated broadcasts like Inside Edition and Hard Copy, magazine shows like 20/20 and PrimeTime Live and 60 Minutes, local TV news magazines (Live at Five/Six/Seven), cable entertainment channels, Oprah and Donahue — celebrities and public personalities are practically crawling out of the set.

Yet the morning shows are still crammed with bureaucrats, publicity-seeking congressmen and -women, and over-exposed stars. The format is great for Henry Kissinger; it’s not as good for viewers.</p.

Wearisome, too, are the frequently recycled consumer life-style Segments — sleep disorders, diet plans, child care choices — that clog the final hour of all three programs. On the three major morning programs, the formats suggest business as usual, complete with live remotes from Washington or Eastern Europe, and the annual winter trip to some exotic, palmy locale.

What is it people want from morning television in the 1990s?

The honest answer is that no one yet knows. It’s clear that people have less time — the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that in 1985 at least 40 percent of the work force was at work by 8 a.m.

It’s also clear that people getting up in the morning will have more choices about what to hear and watch. Network executives may have no choice but to pause long enough in their anchor-trashing and furniture re-ordering to ponder the notion that their challenge is creative and not only cosmetic. They could offer lively debate and commentary instead of dull exchanges with lobbyists; harder-hitting reporting and enterprise instead of think-tank guests and out-of-work secretaries of state; more reporting from communities between the coasts instead of official guests sitting in studios; more reporting on subjects like technology, architecture, religion, and urban affairs, and fewer senators engaged in polite disagreement; more pointed and useful cultural criticism in place of relentless promotion.

Successful television broadcasts always have reflected their times. The Today show was the ultimate in smart ’80s yuppie programming: The ideal broadcast for the ’90s may have to be grittier, more provocative, more reflective of the economic and social struggles Mom and Dad will be dealing with.

The creative paralysis in the morning seems almost poignant, given all that air time. Elsewhere on TV — The Simpsons, Twin Peaks — viewers seem excited by experimentation. Even Dan Rather leaves his anchor-chair behind occasionally to wander about the set.

It’s unlikely there will be enough of the broadcasting pie left in the next few years to sustain three programs as similar as GMA, Today, and CBS This Morning. One of these days, a network producer will be driven mad by budget-obsessed network moguls, carping critics, arrogant publicists, defecting viewers, and expensive interior decorators, and will toss the market researcher out into the street, followed by sofas and floral arrangements, and conceive of some new sort of morning broadcast that will stand out. That producer won’t have much time — only as long as it takes executives to regain control. But if he or she can hold out a while, that’ll probably be the one broadcast that’s left.

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