Williams high on CBS list

Apr 8, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Brian Williams, the MSNBC anchor and heir apparent to “NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw, is on a wish list of people CBS would like to approach to replace the departing Bryant Gumbel on “The Early Show,” according to executives with knowledge of the situation.
Though Mr. Williams has not contemplated any early-morning news chores-he has rarely substituted on “Today”-some at CBS think an offer that parked him on “The Early Show” while waiting for the retirement of Dan Rather-at 70, the oldest of the Big 3 network news anchors-might appeal to the veteran MSNBC newscaster. Mr. Williams, sources said, has sometimes felt like the invisible newsman biding his time at MSNBC, waiting for Mr. Brokaw to move on. Furthermore, Mr. Williams’ nightly broadcast will soon be bumped an hour earlier to make way for Phil Donahue’s forthcoming talk show.
If CBS makes Mr. Williams an offer, “He’s a winner no matter what he does,” said one of the executives. “If he moves to CBS, he would likely get a solid time frame wherein he would replace Rather. And if he stays at NBC, he can use a CBS offer to finally get a solid time frame wherein he would replace Brokaw.”
However, the executives emphasize that Mr. Williams’ name is only on a wish list, and that he has yet to be approached. Furthermore, they stress that they are highly skeptical of getting him, figuring he will likely re-sign with NBC. There is buzz in high network circles that Mr. Williams and NBC are close to wrapping up a new deal-his contract expires at the end of 2002. However, Mr. Williams has molded himself in the old CBS News tradition and was an up-and-coming anchor at WCBS-TV when he moved to NBC in 1993.
A CBS spokeswoman said, “We don’t comment on rumors.”
Among CBS affiliates, Mr. Gumbel’s forthcoming departure-announced April 3-fostered the hope that any change would be for the better.
“Gumbel’s leaving is not necessarily a negative,” said Bruce Baker, executive vice president of Cox Broadcasting.
“An opportunity to put a fresh face in there is a good thing … maybe someone with a little lighter outlook,” said Brian Rackham, news director of KKTV-TV, the Benedek-owned CBS affiliate in Colorado Springs, Colo.
For the most part-aside from “The View’s” Meredith Viera, who TV Guide reports is being hotly pursued for the post-the list of rumored candidates to replace Mr. Gumbel contains usual suspects. They range from Jack Ford, the former NBC News and ABC News man who lost his gamble that he would be the next Charlie Gibson on “Good Morning America,” and “Hollywood Squares” host Tom Bergeron, glib enough to have substituted on both `GMA’ and “The Early Show,” to CBS White House correspondent John Roberts, himself described as a potential successor to Mr. Rather.
Mr. Gumbel’s exit date is expected to be worked out this week.
His replacement should be known, if not in place, by early July, said “Early Show” executive producer Steve Friedman, Mr. Gumbel’s longtime collaborator and friend. Mr. Friedman said Mr. Gumbel helped “The Early Show” do what neither top-ranked “Today” nor second-place “GMA” had been able to do: gain audience in both of the last two years.
Mr. Friedman said he is “sad that one of the people I think is the best who ever was” will be leaving the early-morning news scene after nearly 19 years, 15 of them at “Today.” But he added that he realizes that because Mr. Gumbel was perceived to be as prickly as he was brilliant, “A section of the affiliate body is glad Bryant’s gone.”
“We are guardedly optimistic,” said Rick Keilty, senior VP at Belo, which owns five CBS affiliates. “Morning is much, much more critical to a station’s overall lineup than ever before.”
Because CBS has been unsuccessful and quick to change directions in the mornings over the years, it has often been hard to convince affiliates to carry all of the network’s morning news programming.
In 20 percent of the country, CBS affiliates still run alternating 15-minute blocks of local and network news in the first hour.
Since it renewed its commitment to mornings with “The Early Show,” the $5 million Mr. Gumbel and a $30 million street-level studio in midtown Manhattan three years ago, CBS has increased the pressure on affiliates to clear the whole two hours of network.
Benedek’s KKTV, for example, was forced to give up its “co-op hour” when it renegotiated its affiliate agreement, Mr. Rackham said, and the station has seen that hour decline “significantly” since the switch last year. It now usually finishes in third place.
“From a business standpoint, I don’t blame the network one bit. From a local news standpoint, we were doing better [before],” Mr. Rackham said.
Still, he said “The Early Show” has “done better than previous efforts” by CBS in the morning, and he thinks Mr. Friedman, who recently signed a new three-year contract, is “doing a great job.”
Mr. Rackham is also a fan of Mr. Gumbel’s co-host, Jane Clayson.
“I think she’s terrific. I think she’s underrated,” Mr. Rackham said.
Cox, which only has two CBS affiliates in its 15-station stable-including KIRO in Seattle, the nation’s No. 12 market-is still using the “co-op” format in the first hour. “We’ve never abandoned that. We do well locally,” Mr. Baker said. Still, “I think we are supportive of what CBS is trying to do.”
At KCCI-TV, the powerful Hearst-Argyle-owned CBS affiliate in Des Moines, Iowa, where “The Early Show” finishes second to “Today,” General Manager Paul Fredericksen said, “I hate to see churn.”