Goodbye again to Bryant

Apr 8, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Oh jeez, not another good-bye party for Bryant Gumbel. We’ve scarcely recovered from the last one. You may recall it. Gumbel left NBC’s “Today” show in 1996 after 15 years and people were, literally, weeping in the streets.
Gumbel himself, not known for displays of sentimentality, said his farewell words in a trembling voice, and there were moments when it looked as though he might not make it through. But he did, telling viewers, “Television is not medical research, and 15 years is not a lifetime, but 15 years has been about a third of my life, and it has been a real pleasure and a genuine privilege to represent this program and the wonderful, wonderful people who put it on.”
Get out your hankies, because as you must know by know, Gumbel’s going bye-bye again. He will probably appear on the CBS “Early Show” this week, but it was revealed last week while he was away that contract-renewal negotiations with CBS had broken down, and as a result executive producer Steve Friedman said from his office late Friday, “He’s gone. When the contract’s up, he’s outta here.”
`Somebody screwed up’
Friedman was not happy, but he wasn’t reeling as if from a kidney punch. “I’m surprised, but I’m not shocked,” he said. “Nothing shocks me in television any more.” Friedman, of course, produced NBC’s “Today” show for years before migrating to CBS. People who write about television for a living (not that it’s much of a living) love Friedman because he doesn’t duck phone calls or run off and hide from the press at the first sign of a crisis.
Gumbel himself has, unfortunately, proven much less accessible-but to be honest, this time I didn’t even try.
What Friedman didn’t want to do, understandably, is speculate about Gumbel’s successor. In USA Today, columnist Peter Johnson floated such names as sportscaster Jim Nance, CBS News correspondent Russ Mitchell (who filled in for Gumbel last week) and “game show host Tom Bergeron,” of all people. None of those sounds like a good idea. CBS will probably have to go outside the network for a proper replacement.
A cynic’s first reaction on hearing that Gumbel had quit over contract disputes was to speculate that he asked for a deal like Queen Katie of Couric just got over at NBC and he was turned down. But insiders close to Gumbel say this is probably not a matter of money at all, more a matter of Gumbel wanting windows in the new contract that would allow him an annual opportunity to leave.
There’s a get-tough-with-talent virus running through the networks these days (it’s related to the unseemly panic over lowered profits), and it could be that Les “Macho Man” Moonves was so unyielding that Gumbel lost his temper and said, The hell with it, rather than search for a compromise.
David Letterman, who has a theory about nearly everything-especially inconsequential sports matters, but other things too-said on his Thursday night show that he had his own suspicions regarding Gumbel’s exit: “I have a feeling somebody screwed something up.” He meant CBS brass.
In a gracious gesture-considering how the two of them feuded while at NBC-Letterman hailed Gumbel as “a great broadcaster” and said he assumed that when Gumbel left the “Early Show,” CBS would revert to running “cartoons” in the time slot. It has to be mentioned, in fairness, that the numbers went up on “Today” after Gumbel left, but he nevertheless helped make it No. 1 in the morning ratings.
Happy time
Friedman said that, innocuous though it sounds, the punishing work hours of early-morning TV probably had something to do with Gumbel’s seemingly abrupt decision.
“When he told me about it, he was the happiest I’ve ever seen him,” Friedman said. Gumbel might have been haunted by the feeling that returning to the rigors of morning TV-after his short-lived prime-time CBS show bellied up-looked like a retreat for him, a step backward.
He’s 53 now, and though that is by no means old (why, it’s actually young-quite young, very young, really really young), it’s a good time to make life a little easier on yourself if you can afford to. And he can afford to. Johnson reported that Gumbel gets $1 million in spare change each year for doing HBO’s undeniably excellent “Real Sports” show, for which he’s just re-upped. “Real Sports” is so good that you don’t have to be a sports nut to enjoy it.
Smart and outspoken
Bryant Gumbel has a personality that strikes some people as abrasive. It never struck me that way; he’s a tough interviewer, and in the increasingly candy-coated world of TV news, that’s refreshing. Sometimes, it’s been charged, Gumbel lets his personal views show through in his questioning. Big deal. Loudmouths and bully boys on the Fox News Network spew opinions like crazy and get praised, imitated and richly rewarded for it. There’s a suspicious double-standard at work here.
The fact that Gumbel is intelligent enough even to have a point of view made him stand out in morning television. Diane Sawyer may be gentler about expressing her views, but she’s still honest and outspoken enough to have brought a welcome edge to “Good Morning, America” and given it some heft for the first time in its life. Sawyer and Gumbel-that would’ve been a helluva team.
Then again, two people that smart on one show probably wouldn’t work. And besides, there’d be that constant backstage bickering over who was better dressed. Or prettier.
Gumbel’s exit from “The Early Show” and from CBS certainly won’t be the emotional experience that his “Today” farewell was; don’t buy stock in Kleenex just yet. CBS and Gumbel never quite jelled. That’s too bad, but it says much worse things about CBS than it does about the brilliant Bryant.