Friedman Redux

Apr 3, 2006  •  Post A Comment

When morning maestro Steve Friedman came back to CBS News last week, his baseball bat was waiting for him. It was among the boxes of office “stuff” he’d left at “The Early Show” studio when he signed off as senior executive producer nearly four years ago.

“Somebody told me today they had the bat ready for me,” Mr. Friedman told The Insider just hours after the announcement that he was returning to CBS as VP in charge of the morning newscasts.

The bat, of course, is Mr. Friedman’s Louisville Slugger Paul O’Neill model, bought and treasured because the former Red Sox and Yankees outfielder “played baseball like I produce television: to win and win only.”

In TV circles, Mr. Friedman’s bat is as well known as his take-no-prisoners wit. But last week he jovially declared that after getting back into the morning groove, “I’m pale, chubby and rested and ready to go.”

The conversation that followed was vintage Friedman: energetic, entertaining and opinionated enough to draw (someone else’s) blood on occasion.

His new role was discussed beginning in January with CBS News and Sports President Sean McManus. Both men say nothing should be read into the fact that Mr. Friedman, who worked with Katie Couric at “Today,” comes back to CBS News at about the time Ms. Couric is expected to leave “Today” to become anchor of “CBS Evening News.”

“There is zero connection,” said Mr. McManus, who has known Mr. Friedman for 20 years or more. “Steve’s job is purely to work on the morning.”

Mr. Friedman will oversee Michael Bass, who worked for Mr. Friedman during some heady years when Mr. Friedman was at the helm of NBC’s powerful “Today” show and who multiplied the co-host population after he succeeded Mr. Friedman at the helm of “The Early Show.” Neither man was able to pry “The Early Show” out of third place in the morningshow competition.

“I’m Sean’s guy at the show and I’m the show’s guy with Sean,” Mr. Friedman said. He compared the CBS News setup to the working relationships between Phil Griffin, the NBC News senior VP in charge of “Today,” and “Today” executive producer Jim Bell and between Phyllis McGrady, the ABC News senior VP in charge of “Good Morning America” and prime-time news programming, and “whoever’s doing ‘Good Morning America’ at the time.”

It was an unexpected and oblique jab at Ben Sherwood, the executive producer under whom “GMA” has lost the momentum that had brought the show soooooo close to “Today” in the ratings.

“What can I tell you?” he asked, oh so rhetorically. “The reason you [press] guys like me so much is that I tell it like it is.”

Although it was always apparent that Mr. Friedman knew almost as much about his competition as he did about his own morning show, he said: “Don’t let anybody tell you any different-you have to worry more about what you do than what the others are doing. That’s where we’ll begin. We’ll begin with what we do. And while we’re watching what we do, we’ll look at what the others are doing.”

“The initial goal is to have better segments and more memorable features,” Mr. McManus told The Insider. “Hopefully, with that will come better ratings.”

“My mandate is to make it the best it can be and then tell people, ‘You better watch this ‘cuz it’s really good,’ and then hope I’m right. Whatever happens, I have to have a vehicle that shows growth.

“And I’m telling you this as a person who’s done a lot of this: When you’re at a network where everything works, it’s a lot easier to make something that hasn’t worked in the past work.”

He’s definitely ba-a-a-a-a-a-a-ack.