Ken Tucker thinks the A.M. shows have become indistinguishable

By Ken Tucker
Updated September 08, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Will Bryant Gumbel’s new morning program be a knockoff?

All of a sudden, morning talk shows are worth talking about — complaining about, arguing about, musing about. I think it’s great that Bryant Gumbel is coming back to morning TV, this time at the helm of CBS’ long-standing 7-9 a.m. morass. When he was the coanchor of NBC’s ”Today Show,” Gumbel always added some tough-mindedness and tension to the mushy slackness these shows too often exhibit.

Naturally, the hunt for Gumbel’s cohost has been the object of widespread curiosity, since it is well known he’s not just an intelligent fellow, but a prickly one too, and there were periods of noticeable chilliness with ”Today” cohosts Jane Pauley and,. subsequently, Katie Couric. The announcement of Gumbel’s new on-air partner, L.A. anchor Jill Clayson, was made this week, and CBS is going to give Gumbel a new studio, complete with a window onto the streets of New York.

This is where morning talk shows are annoying. They all tend to copy each other. NBC surges in the ratings because they pull back their curtains to reveal tourists waving ”We love Al Roker signs”? CBS and struggling ”Good Morning America” on ABC are going to do the same — ”GMA”’s Times Square studio will be unveiled next Monday. To all this windowing-on-the-world I say: Blech. And wonder: Are there enough goofy tourists to go around? (As opposed to the vast majority of tourists, the intelligent, discerning, non-white-socks-with-sandals-wearing ones who putter around Manhattan.)

Later in the morning, the current phenomenon is ABC’s ”The View,” Barbara Walters’ all-gal chat-fest that has inspired, among other things, cohost Meredith Vieira to reveal herself to be the most let-it-all-hang-out suburban housewife this side of a John Updike novel.

”The View”’s success has, therefore, inspired what sounds like a copycat: This week, NBC premieres ”Later Today,” at 9 a.m. directly after ”The Today Show.” ”Later Today” features NBC news anchor Jodi Applegate, reporter Asha Blake, and ”The Brady Bunch”’s Florence Henderson. Designed to be, if this is possible, less news-oriented than ”The Today Show,” ”Later Today”’s debut on Monday was packed with forced jollity, but that may have been just first-show jitters.

Applegate is awfully personable, and Florence Henderson is one of the coolest people in TV history, no kidding — smart, surprisingly salty, and never sweet. But the show seems awkward and contrived, lurching from serious news stories to cooking segments just like… well, all the early-morning shows.

Whatever happened to distinctive network identities and originality in the morning? Oh, yeah, now I remember — they died when David Letterman’s NBC morning show flopped after a mere 4 months in 1980. Better to copy success than flame out, right?

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