`Saturday’ wake-up call

Jan 28, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Steve Friedman intends to breathe a little live into “The Saturday Early Show.”
The senior executive producer of “The Early Show” on CBS weekdays has quietly assumed control of “Saturday,” the amiable if sleepy 41/2-year-old show that keeps plugging along with its stand-alone staff being asked to do an awful lot on very little.
The challenge now is to make “Saturday” an extension of the weekday brand in more than name only. Some of the obvious tools Mr. Friedman and “Early Show” executive producer Lyne Pitts will use include adding an extra day onto high-profile elements, whether it’s a “Week of Wishes” or John Frankel reporting from the Super Bowl not just on Friday and Monday but also on Saturday. They’ll also try to capitalize on the built-in opportunities to plug “Saturday.”
The blending began with the recent reassignment of founding “Saturday” co-anchor Thalia Assuras as “Early Show” Washington correspondent. (She also continues to anchor the Saturday “Evening News.”)
Since then, faithful viewers-an average 1.78 million people, fewer than half the 4.77 million who tuned in to NBC’s “Saturday Today” through the fourth quarter of 2001-have watched “Saturday” anchor Russ Mitchell play a serene Regis Philbin to a string of fill-in co-anchors, from “Early Show” correspondent Tracy Smith and entertainment contributor Laurie Hibberd to “Newspath” correspondent Gretchen Carlson.
Mr. Friedman said his choices are not limited to the eight to 10 internal candidates.
In the meantime, he’s committed to co-anchoring with Mr. Mitchell and doing the show with folksy weatherman Ira Joe Fisher (who every Saturday morning draws his weather map backward), often droll reports from CBS News Radio White House correspondent Mark Knoller, touching “Everybody Has a Story” segments from Steve Hartman, the Second Cup Cafe (which books a variety of musical acts), Chef on a Shoestring and segments that reflect today’s health and family consciousness.
Other subjects will reflect a weekend sensibility, Mr. Friedman said, including movies, gardening, hobbies and home improvement.
Wherever it is not counterproductive, segments will be live. Mr. Friedman said about 65 percent of the show has tended to be pretaped in the past-glaringly apparent to New Yorkers who know that the weather they can see out their windows does not match what their TV is showing outside the Midtown “Early Show” studios just blocks away.
“It’s harder to [get] people [up]” to appear on Saturday mornings, Mr. Friedman said, “but this is what we’re going to do.”
The first and third half-hours will feel increasingly newsier. “I don’t believe in stacking shows in descending order,” Mr. Friedman said. He added that, weekend or weekday, a morning show must tell people what happened overnight, tell people something they can use in life and give people something to talk and smile about.
NBC, for which Mr. Friedman has twice produced “Today,” was the first broadcaster to put a stake in weekend turf after seeing how lucrative weekends were for CNN. “Sunday Today” launched in 1987. Its success spawned “Saturday Today” in 1992, making it even easier for the network to leverage potential advertisers into the mix by selling spots on the sixth and seventh days at a lower cost than weekday spots.
Some 88 percent of CBS affiliates have cleared the Saturday show, in most cases at 9 a.m.
“It is not a great hit,” said Alan Bell, president of Freedom Broadcasting, five of whose eight TV stations are CBS affiliates. “The bottom line is … show me the numbers.”