Who'll replace Bryant Gumbel at CBS? His sudden departure from ''The Early Show'' leaves the future of CBS' struggling morning series up in the air
Bryant Gumbel
Credit: Bryant Gumbel: Nancy Kaszerman/ZUMA Press

Bryant Gumbel has decided he doesn’t want to get up early for CBS’ ”The Early Show” anymore, begging the question: Who does?

Gumbel, 53, has been a morning news icon longer than anyone in TV history, having spent 15 years (1982-97) hosting NBC’s ”Today” and two and a half years on ”Early,” which CBS created around him in 1999. But on Thursday he announced, ”After more than 17 years of hosting a morning news program, I feel it’s time for me to move on and do something else with my life.”

Gumbel didn’t say when he would step down, but his current contract is due to expire in May. ”Despite the terms of his contract, there is no timetable yet,” CBS News spokeswoman Sandy Genelius tells EW.com. ”The next step will be for Bryant and [CBS News president] Andrew Heyward to think of a departure date that everyone is comfortable with.”

Whether Gumbel will stay with CBS after he leaves the show is not certain but when asked if Gumbel is leaving the network, Genelius says, ”Right now, that’s my understanding.” The network’s response to his announcement did sound a lot like a gold-watch testimonial. CBS President Leslie Moonves called Gumbel ”a uniquely talented individual who will excel at any challenge or opportunity put before him. It has been a pleasure to call him both a friend and a colleague.”

In any case, his split comes at a precarious time for ”The Early Show.” After a slow start, the program has risen in the ratings, thanks largely to the show’s frequent role as a cog in the ”Survivor” machine. Still, it has averaged only 2.7 million daily viewers this season, well behind the 4.8 million who’ve been watching ABC’s ”Good Morning America” and the 6.2 million viewers of ”Today.”

Similarly, while the Gumbel program has raised CBS’ ad revenue in that timeslot from $8 million to $50 million a year, ”GMA” earns $110 million, and ”Today” makes $250 million. ”While I am naturally disappointed that the show didn’t fare better in the ratings, I am pleased with the quality of the broadcast we created,” Gumbel’s statement said. ”I remain grateful for the opportunity I had to make CBS a competitive presence in the morning.”

Can the show survive without Gumbel? Or was Gumbel, who can seem prickly and cold to morning viewers, actually holding the show back? ”I’m not sure if he was the problem or the solution,” says Tom DeCabia, executive vice president of PHD, a firm that buys time for sponsors on all the morning shows. ”But I think this gives CBS a chance to kickstart that show and give it what it really needs.”

It’s hard to know who might replace him. (Genelius says Heyward isn’t even thinking about candidates until he and Gumbel set a departure date.) Gumbel’s vacation substitutes have included CBS’ Russ Mitchell, CBS Sports’ Jim Nantz, and ”Hollywood Squares” host Tom Bergeron. But do any of them have the stature to draw viewers and the versatility to do the job?

”The program is instantly thrown into chaos unless CBS gets some strong, high-profile person to replace him,” says EW TV critic Ken Tucker. ”They need a hard news person who is also willing to do cooking segments and interview ‘Survivor’ contestants. They probably have to start looking at other networks to poach someone. Their candidates are either too lightweight or too old and set in their ways.”

But a big-name replacement won’t come cheap. CBS hired Gumbel five years ago for $5 million a year, which seems a bargain now that ”Today”’s Katie Couric is earning $13 million. That’s why DeCabia says CBS should find someone new and untried, as Gumbel’s cohost Jane Clayson was when she started: ”I don’t think it’s worth it for them to spend a lot of money. They should just tear it down and start from the bottom. Get someone young and new and let them grow in that spot. Even when they brought a big name in, it didn’t turn that show around. So why invest the money?”

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