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Gearing up for a new morning

Oct 28, 2002  •  Post A Comment

This is a story about the career choices five people have made about an opportunity on TV. An opportunity to turn around a TV show with one of the poorest track records of any long-running show on the air.
“I feel like Bill Murray in `Groundhog Day.’ Sonny and Cher is on the clock radio. I’m going to get this right, by golly,” said Harry Smith, who was co-anchor of “CBS This Morning” from 1987 to 1996.
“In my case,” said Julie Chen, another member of the team, “it wasn’t so much of a career choice. I never actively went for it. It chose me, and it was better than what I had going on.” Ms. Chen has been the newsreader for three years on “The Early Show,” as well as host of “Big Brother.”
Along with former CNN and NBC sportscaster Hannah Storm and a new face–Rene Syler, who was weekday anchor at Viacom-owned KTVT-TV, Dallas–Mr. Smith and Ms. Chen are the co-anchors who, starting today, hope to turn around CBS’s morning effort.
Executive producer Michael Bass, who spent much of the ’90s at NBC’s powerful “Today” show, is striving to find success where CBS has found little during the past 48 years. “The Early Show” has burned through eight different titles since CBS launched a morning show with anchors Walter Cronkite and Charles Collingwood on March 15, 1954.
Electronic Media’s national editor, Michele Greppi, asked the five new teammates a few key questions.
EM: Given the history of this time slot on CBS, why did you make this career choice?
Harry Smith: Andrew [Heyward, president of CBS News] called me last July and said, `Come fill in for a week.’ I thought about it for a second and said, `You know what, it’s July and HUTs are way down and what a lark. Wouldn’t that be fun to do for a week?’
I came on and I had zero expectations of what the experience was going to be like or anything else. And it was a lot of fun. Doing live television is a lot of fun. And there was plenty of news going on, and I was very impressed with how well produced the show was, segment by segment.
And by the end of the week I had a problem, because I thought this was all behind me. How is it that after six years away from morning television, I do it for a couple of days and I’m suddenly thinking–OK, so I am an addict. So what can I tell you? I thought I had compartmentalized and put that itch away a long time ago. And suddenly I was scratching all over.
Then they called me back in early September and said come back again, and when they did, I thought, `Well, here we go. Somebody’s talking to somebody.’ And we ended up making a deal.
The other thing that happened to me is I continue to be very happy at A&E [hosting `Biography’], but the fact is that a year ago, after Sept. 11, I was on the outside of the fence. I spent my whole life working in the news business and suddenly the most important story of my lifetime and I can’t get close to it. This is an opportunity not only to do `The Early Show’ for CBS but also to get back in the news business.
And another thing: While they have been in all of this anchor turmoil and everything else over the last couple of months, a couple of million people still watch the show every day. We’re not starting from zero.
Rene Syler: I never was one of those people who said, `I’m aspiring to the network and I can’t wait to get there to New York, and I’m going to put my head down and work until I get there.’ No, that wasn’t me. But when this opportunity was presented, the opportunity to be part of something fun and new and exciting and different from what I was doing was, quite frankly, exhilarating. We were all aware of the task at hand, but we’re going to work hard and we’re going to play hard, and you know what? It might work. The chance to be a part of something that could really take off was just far too exciting for me to turn down.
Hannah Storm: I really, frankly, don’t care what the history of the show is because I’m not about that. I’m about the future. I’m coming from a background at CNN and NBC in highly successful programming, hosting huge events, the biggest events in television–the Olympics and World Series and NBA Finals–and I come from such a background of positive television experience that this whole notion of there somehow being some sort of negativity associated with the history of this program, it’s not a culture that I’m coming from. It’s not a part of my mentality in joining the show.
These jobs are enormously difficult to come by. Morning television is something I always have dreamed of. If there hadn’t been a need to do something different at CBS, I wouldn’t have this job. To me taking this job is a no-brainer. It’s an opportunity that comes along once in lifetime and you’ve got to give it a shot. If you don’t take chances in your life, you’re not going to get anywhere.
I can’t personally control how many eyeballs watch the show. I can control the kind of job I do and how good a teammate I am to my co-hosts, and that’s what I plan on concentrating on. I have had to struggle. Being a woman in sports, the obstacles I have overcome professionally up to this point … just even getting on the air to even do what I wanted to do, to get a job as a woman, just to overcome that flat-out was enormous, and so I come from a perspective of looking at things in a positive light. I don’t focus on the other. I would have quit a long time ago.
I am not blindly optimistic. I am an informed optimist. Harry’s on the show. How bad can it be? Harry’s good. Jules is great. I kind of know what I’m doing. And Rene is hilarious. It’s gonna be OK. We’ll get it down.
Julie Chen: Yes, it’s a huge risk, at any network in this time period, but nothing great in life ever comes out of playing it safe. Look, the downside of it is not so much for any one of us personally, whether it’s Michael Bass or myself, Harry, Hannah or Rene. It’s more going to be–if it doesn’t work–a headache for the network. I truly believe this will only have an upside for me and my career, because I know what I’m capable of and I know what I will and won’t do on the show.
So if the show does not become a ratings success, hopefully it will give me the experience and the exposure to get something else that may be the right fit for me or something else that I love to do.
I used to be from the school of thought of always half-empty, half-empty and I’m just starting to train myself into positive reinforcement, positive thinking. Maybe it’s because the stakes are higher for me now. The last time the network tried to turn around the morning hour, I was hired as the news anchor, where you can’t take the blame or the credit for whatever happens.
Michael Bass: I look at it as a tremendous challenge and also a fantastic opportunity. In part because of the history of this place, to make it a success would be an incredible achievement. It would be a lot of fun to do. It’s a great opportunity because there is so much here to work with, and we really like this new idea and we really love the talent we have put together. The only place to go is up. Going up a few tenths here means so much more than doing it anywhere else. They’re desperate for success here, and I really think it’s achievable. I really wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t think it was possible.
EM: What element do you bring to the chemistry?
Mr. Smith: Arsenic. Arsenic and optimism. I have been optimistic before. I am the most optimistic this time.
There’s a segment of the show at 25 after the hour where it goes back to the local stations and everybody does the news and weather. When I used to do the show years ago we would have that segment and whoever was around, the doctor or the so and so, would come on over and sit on the couch and if it were a guest you’d say, `Stay for an extra four minutes. This goes to a couple of local stations in America that don’t have local news and to Bermuda and who knows where else. ‘ It had a little less formal feel to it, a little less staged, scripted sense about it, and invariably when the show would be over people would say, `You know that was the best segment of the show.’

What the idea of this ensemble is how can we bring some of that sensibility, whatever that is, a little less formality, perhaps, a little more opportunity just to reflect on the day’s events. That’s part of the idea behind the show. That’s sort of the feel of the stuff we did today, and it was working pretty well. How it works on Monday is going to be a lot different than how it works a month from now. We really have not had that kind of problem with people talking over each other or that kind of stuff. I think somebody went back and checked everybody’s report card to make sure they play well with others. I think we’re going to be OK with that.
I clearly have the most news experience and the most experience in the daypart. But at the same time, there are two things that are happening. As people’s strengths become more and more apparent, people will have the opportunity to play to those strengths. And with four people, if I want to go to Qatar, it becomes less of a deal if one of four anchors goes somewhere to work on a news story for a while.
Mr. Bass: I knew Harry looked a little strange. I’m going to keep my eye on him because he was around the lunch table today.
It’s my role and the whole production team’s role to look at the strengths of each of the people and to bring those to the fore in the best way we can, to maximize the opportunities to not only reveal and show off the individual personalities, the individual strengths of each of these four very strong and engaging people but also find ways to make sure they don’t clash with each other and that they fit together.
They need to complement each other and not clash on the air, but we need to find production elements and topics and ways of transitioning through stories and interviews and segments that help them do that. So there’s a production challenge to creating chemistry also in terms of finding the right subjects and the right stories and the right interview to bring people together.
There’s a kind of accordion opportunity here where we can do segments with just one of them or two, three or four. But to find the right times to use two and to create different dynamics with groups of two–Hannah and Rene on a parenting segment or Hannah and Julie on a fashion segment or Harry and Julie on a music segment or whatever it might be to create interesting dynamics that are opportunities to maximize the chemistry and the personality our people bring to the table.
One problem in the previous incarnation of the show is that there weren’t enough opportunities for Bryant and Jane to interact because of the way the show was structured. We have altered the structure a little bit–there’s still some restrictions–so there are more opportunities for the talent to interact with each other.
There is news credibility. That’s important. We’re a news program and we need to have that, and we do with our group. But personality and chemistry are so important to a morning show, where people need to feel comfortable with the people they see on the screen because it is a family thing in the morning, a vulnerable time of the day. They need to feel that the people on the air get along, and they would either enjoy being there on the set having a conversation with them or they would enjoy having them come into their house and have a conversation.
The rehearsals have gone well. I think they have gotten to know each other well. They are doing these profiles of each other that have allowed them to learn a little bit more about each other than they might have if they were just sort of hanging out in the studio doing rehearsals. They spent some time researching each other and doing interviews. We’re going to use those on air to introduce the cast from Tuesday through Friday, one each day. They actually drew fortune cookies out of a basket.
They will be very good on the first day. I think as it goes along, a month later, six months later, they will be all that much better.
Some segments will work and we’ll build on them, and some won’t and we’ll just throw those out and try others. It’s a growing process. But the important thing to make this really work for CBS is that it can’t just launch at a number and drop off back to where it did last time with Bryant. We have to come out with a number and then we have to grow. We have to build.
Ms. Storm: If Harry is bringing the arsenic to the table, we aren’t letting him anywhere near any food segments. Forget it. He is not allowed in the kitchen.
I don’t know that you are going to say, `Oh, this is the funny one, this is the newsy one, this is the great interviewer.’ I just know that sort of delineation is going to be made. At times I can be funny. I can be a very tough interviewer, and I think I excel at live television, breaking news situations. You’re going to see a little bit of all of that as well as a softness and a compassion that just comes from really being a mother. I think there’s just an element of that that will probably seep through. Different parts of you will shine through in different situations, as long as you’re not trying to be somebody else.
Ms. Syler: You have four people who have a great sense of humor, who are very smart, and who are for the most part pretty easygoing, and we’re taking this all seriously, but we also understand we are going to have some fun with this. There really is chemistry with us. We feel very comfortable.
Ms. Chen: I hope my contribution to the chemistry is going to be, as the youngest person out of the four, to offer maybe a hipper view on things, on topics. As a single woman in her early 30s, whether it’s how I feel about a huge story going on, like the sniper story–I don’t have children to worry about or have a husband to worry about or to worry about me, if I was living in D.C.–to more trivial stories like, oh, did you know this is the hot new thing everyone is saying or doing or wearing. That’s what I hope to bring to the table, and if I can say something and have the other three kind of raise their eyebrows and go `Really? Well, you know that’s a good point,’ then I have done my part.