Heinz Klutmeier/CBS
July 26, 2012 at 08:46 PM EDT

In certain ways, morning TV new shows — The Today Show, Good Morning America, and CBS This Morning — are among the most complicated, compromised, brave, and vexed programming in all of television. The demands made upon these shows and their hosts — to cover hard news and conduct celebrity interviews; to be cheerful, welcoming guests in our homes while also being required to morph into stone-faced reporters when hard-news breaks — make them cauldrons of contradictions. They are feel-good programming and ratings-panderers; they ask for our affection even when, behind the scenes, they are troubled and sometimes in disarray. They make a scripted drama like NCIS look like a school pageant when it comes to complex drama.

These thoughts occurred this morning, as ABC News hosted a conference with its Good Morning America team, including Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos, for journalists attending the TV Critics Association press conference in Los Angeles. Right after that, former CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric took the same stage, to answer questions from the critics about her new, upcoming daytime talk show, Katie. Around the same time, CBS announced that Nora O’Donnell would replace Erica Hill as a co-host (with Charlie Rose and Gail King) of CBS This Morning. And of course, Savannah Guthrie has now winged over to London to co-anchor The Today Show‘s coverage of the Olympics. Each of these scenarios is fraught with subtexts beyond their promotional intent.

The first question posed to the GMA panel didn’t involve the show or the news; a reporter asked after Robin Roberts’ health. As she has done many times, Roberts answered the question with admirable directness, saying that she’d be having a bone-marrow transplant in late August or early September, which would take her away from the show for a while. This is an example of the way TV personalities become people we care about, and Roberts’ unsentimental forthrightness is a model for the way people in the public eye can address such questions without turning their personal tribulations into implied requests for sympathy.

It must be tricky, on the part of both Roberts and ABC, to negociate this process as her health problems continue, to not allow what becomes an ever-present subtext to Roberts’ on-air work (the TCA questioner, for example, yoked the health question to one about Roberts’ interview with President Obama) to seem like special pleading. (I’ll quickly raise the uncomfortable but realpolitik question: To what extent do Roberts’ health problems figure in to GMA‘s recent ratings rise over The Today Show? Somewhat, is my guess: People who watch morning television are invested in their hosts as celebrities they like, and in that sense, Roberts — through no change in her own demeanor, but simply because of the great misfortune of her health — becomes a celebrity some people may feel they want to spend more time with.) GMA producer Tom Cibrowski was asked who would take Roberts’ place during her medical leave, and he mentioned “Kelly Ripa and the good women of The View” as having volunteered. Awfully nice of them, but I shudder to think what might happen some morning when a tragic event or a serious political story breaks and we have to watch Ripa (a terrific TV personality, but no one’s idea of a reporter) or Elisabeth Hasselbeck (ditto) grapple with the job.

One of the traps of TV news is figuring out what its purpose is. The intro to the GMA panel included a taped piece touting ABC News’ accomplishments, with a narrator saying that at ABC, the mandate is to “inform, inspire, and empower viewers.” Two-thirds of that mandate is exactly the kind of hogwash that will always make the best TV news inferior to the best print/online news organizations: Do you think The New York Times sees it as part of its role to “inspire and empower” its readers? Of course not — we all know that these words in this context are code for “we’re going to have Diane Sawyer ask softball questions of both world leaders and ordinary citizens so she can find out how they feeeeeel.”

It was this more adroit ability to shift between soft and hard news that helped make Katie Couric such a star as a Today Show co-host. Now, hosting a daytime talk show in the wake of Oprah‘s departure and Anderson‘s modest foothold in the genre, Katie enters a marketplace in which she has to decide how serious she wants to be (there’s always the Phil Donahue model, and good luck trying to revive that fascinating but now-near-impossible issues-oriented approach) or whether she wants to boogie down with her mostly-female audience a la Ellen DeGeneres.

It was telling, in this sense, that one question a journalist asked on Thursday was whether Couric’s “hard news background” would “help or hurt” her in hosting Katie. We’ve reach the point where having even somewhat serious credentials is seen as a possible handicap. Couric is a pro, and she fielded questions with calm good humor, but you have to wonder: How much frantic fine-tuning is being done preceding the launch to make Katie fun but capable of pivoting to breaking news (the show will be live); what are the proportions that go into one of the show’s promotional slogans that Couric said she liked: “Smart with Heart”? I can picture Couric’s old pal Jeff Zucker, who’s apparently going to be doing everything as a producer on Katie short of applying her make-up (and I fully expect he’ll have an opinion on that, too), saying to his host, “People don’t like too much smart, Katie — when your gut says ‘smart,’ go ‘heart.'”

Finally, if you don’t think Savannah Guthrie’s move to Today Show co-anchor didn’t help spur Nora O’Donnell’s move to CBS This Morning co-host, you’re more idealistic than I. I’m on record as saying I think the Guthrie move was a good one. I also think O’Donnell makes for a very good fit on CBS This Morning. As it happens, I was on CBS This Morning recently, analyzing the Emmy nominations, when O’Donnell was sitting with Rose and King, and I was struck, with all of these TV shows and names coming across the air live, at how engaged and sharp O’Donnell was, how she zoomed in on certain trends and themes in the nominations. She did that with fluff like the Emmys, and she did it with far more serious news that CBS This Morning tackles (and seems to tackle, I might add, more frequently than the competition — when you’re in third place, you try harder).

Because CBSTM trails GMA and The Today Show, O’Donnell’s arrival probably won’t spur the kind of media drama that Guthrie’s did. (And I’ll bet Erica Hill, a fine TV journalist, will remain dry-eyed in her farewell remarks if she makes any.) But given the Frankenstein-monster beasts that morning shows are — sewn together from bits of news, banter, cooking and financial advice, and chuckles from the weather-man’s jokes — people like me, who can often dismiss morning TV as light fare easy to ignore, do so at the risk of missing some of the most intricate drama on the air.

Twitter: @kentucker

For more: Katie Couric extends invite to Sarah Palin

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