Q&A: CBS’ ‘Early Show’s’ Shelley Ross

Sep 16, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Shelley Ross was named senior executive producer of “The Early Show” on CBS last week, ending weeks of speculation about whether CBS News and Sports President Sean McManus would turn to the morning-show veteran in an attempt to make the perennial distant-third-place show a more profitable competitor.
“The Early Show” will look different come January because the network will no longer allow recalcitrant affiliates to insert extensive local news segments in the first and second half-hours. It’s still unknown what changes might be made to the core ensemble of anchors Harry Smith, Hannah Storm and Julie Chen (the wife of CBS Corp. President and CEO Leslie Moonves).
Also still to be decided are the next gigs for “Early” senior executive producer Michael Bass and morning broadcasts VP Steve Friedman.
Ms. Ross, who has fierce fans and detractors, has had a vivid career that included early years as a newspaper reporter, a stint with a supermarket tabloid, working with Maria Shriver and Tom Snyder at NBC and wrangling exclusives for ABC News and Diane Sawyer during the O.J. Simpson saga from the West Coast. She became best known, as executive producer of “Good Morning America,” for stopping the ratings freefall in 1999 with new anchors Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer.
In 2004, amid reports of anchor politics and staff unrest, the toothpick-sized dynamo was replaced at “GMA” by the since-departed Ben Sherwood. After working out her contract for the entertainment division — she produced street magician David Blaine’s “Drowned Alive” — she left ABC in 2006.
TelevisionWeek National Editor Michele Greppi talked with Ms. Ross last week about everything from her assessment of the morning television landscape to what it took to lure her back into the battle for viewers. She also addressed whether she has mellowed and why she’s tired of being described as “hard-charging” and “Armani-clad.”
For the record, Ms. Ross conceded, after the interview had ended, that she was wearing Armani.
TVWeek: How does it feel to be going back to the dawn patrol?
Shelley Ross: The bat caves. It’s thrilling. Words you never thought you’d hear from Shelley Ross again: Going back to morning television, but I’m genuinely thrilled.
TVWeek: What did you have to think through to say yes? You haven’t really repeated yourself in your career.
Ms. Ross: You’re so right. I didn’t really wrestle with a lot. I really love morning television. I love the excitement, the adrenaline. There’s no place that’s as competitive. There’s no place where you can flex as many muscles and where you can be as clever and creative as your team is. You can do anything. I can’t say that there’s been anything in the civilian world as exciting. But I honestly had moved on and I had other projects that were very exciting, and I thought you do a morning stint once in your life. But I kept coming back to the same thing: Whatever I did next was going to be as much whom I did it with as what it was. I met Sean McManus, spoke to Les Moonves, and I knew they were in a small group of people whom I want to work with. I didn’t really know that it would be the morning. But Sean, the more we talked, said, “This is what I really need you to do.” And I really wanted to work with him. So I said OK, and then I really started to get the bug. It is a big adrenaline rush. The other thing it took was I just feel CBS is in a window of opportunity. The landscape has changed. The other shows are wrestling. It just felt like there was a window to come in and shake it up again.
TVWeek: Have you watched the morning shows enough to come away with any overall observations about the changes on camera or about the overall competitive landscape?
Ms. Ross: I have. I do think there’s a lot of redundancy, and I do think once upon a time it felt more competitive and more exciting. When I was in the control room, and Jeff Zucker [then “Today” executive producer and now president and CEO of NBC Universal] was in the “Today” show control room, my heart used to pound every day at like 6:59. What is he going to come up with next? When he did something brilliant, it was thrilling to get beaten by a brilliant idea.
TVWeek: Or buzzed by a helicopter, as Mr. Zucker ordered during a “GMA” concert in the park?
Ms. Ross: That wasn’t fun. I’ll never forget there was one day when we were all on the news and I looked up and Jeff was leading with the opening of the new “Star Wars.” He went with not hard news but the opening of a big pop cultural event, the first one where people were camping out for seats. I do feel that it’s become very formulaic. A lot of it has to go with the times. After 9/11, we all changed. It was very sobering and people needed to wake up with a different news. But we used to find stories. … One of our biggest at “Good Morning America” was the mystery of “IT,” which turned out to be the Segway. People had signed confidentiality agreements, Harvard Business School, Jeff Bezos had invested in it. We found someone who would do 20 questions with us on it. He had seen it. He had signed a confidentiality agreement, but he agreed to play 20 questions. There were just so many buzz-y things all the time, and they’re all flooding back to me now. I just don’t see that anymore. I remember how much fun it used to be to really just step out — you want a formula that works, because that’s your show. I remember the two days I felt the boldest. One was, you remember when they found the woolly mammoth in Siberia? I put the excavation of the woolly mammoth at the bottom of the first half-hour, but I thought that was huge news. It was great science news. That spiked. At the same time I remember doing things because we were ABC News and putting the starting day of the Milosevic trial at the Hague in the first half-hour, and that spiked. That’s sort of high-risk, high-reward. It’ll just be fun. When it’s just two shows in the competition, which is what it’s been for too long, it’s easier to compete. Now that there will be a third competitor, it’s really, really tough to look over both shoulders.
TVWeek: So what did it take to convince you to take on the challenge of “The Early Show”?
Ms. Ross: Honestly? Sean McManus. I believe Sean McManus has a rare drive to win that I share, and I just think he’s great. The team that he has put together, they want to win.
TVWeek: Were there any particular complications or thoughts conjured up by the fact that you will be competing against some very close former colleagues, such as Diane Sawyer?, And the fact that you now are under the same news division roof as former competitor Katie Couric and former ABC News colleagues such as Rick Kaplan and Paul Friedman? And “It’s a small world” doesn’t count as an answer.
Ms. Ross: No. 1: I haven’t met Katie yet here, because she was in Baghdad, and I’m looking forward to that. I do think that’s going to be fun. No. 2: Rick hired me at ABC. It feels very comfortable to know Rick and Paul. It feels like a comfortable shoe. It doesn’t feel like I’m walking into some strange network. As far as the competition goes, people leak spoilers and I read in Variety last week that I was out for revenge and all that — it can’t be farther from the truth. When you realize it’s only business, it feels like what I imagine the Williams sisters feel like in tennis. You grew up together. You love each other. You root for each other. But when you get out on the court, you try to beat the pants off each other. … It’s just not personal. I think this is going to be fun.
TVWeek: You inspire very strong reactions, sometimes positive and sometimes not, from people with whom you’ve worked and with whom you’ve competed. Have you mellowed or otherwise changed since you left ABC?
Ms. Ross: You’ll have to see that. I’m not sure, but I can sense that there’s a different appreciation. I think it’s not that I mellowed, but that what I actually did there resonated. I have the same drive, the same enthusiasm. Sean McManus said to me in one of our meetings: … “Is there anything you would do differently today than you did at ‘Good Morning America.'” … — And I said, “If I had to do it all over again, I would on the first day tell the staff, ‘This is going to be really difficult. It’s really difficult to change a show while you’re on the air. It’s difficult to flex new muscles, difficult to have the next person coming in with a vision and you’ve heard it all before.’ At the time I was the fifth executive producer in two years at “GMA.” It’s just conflicting messages. It’s hard on the staff. But I said, “I would spell out it’s a great challenge but it’s a difficult challenge. It’s going to be hard on you, and it’s going to be hard on me. It’s not me being hard on you. It’s a difficult task to do.” That was one of our earlier meetings, and I said that today. It doesn’t have anything to do with me mellowing. This is network television. This is the big game. It’s the Olympics of morning television. Nobody is going to say, “Your Olympics coach is too demanding.” If you want to win, if you want a champion team, it’s demanding, it’s difficult.
TVWeek: What adjectives do you prefer to see appear before your name?
Ms. Ross: I’m really sick of “Armani-clad” and “hard-charging.” How about innovative, creative, energetic, I mean super-energetic, unbearably enthusiastic? All of those identify me. But “hard-charging” and “Armani-clad”? I mean, somebody pick up a thesaurus.
TVWeek: As somebody who’s been guilty of using “hard-charging,” I settled on that as a sort of neutral description.
Ms. Ross: “Hard-charging” is neutral, but I don’t know if anybody knows what that means. I’m committed. I’m dedicated. I’m very competitive. I once was told, when I first got in this business, “It’s better to be right than first.” I never forgot that. But my version is: “It’s really great to be right and first.”
TVWeek: How much morning television have you watched since you left the daily grind?
Ms. Ross: I watched a lot the first year. Then, like many viewers, I drifted off to “Squawk Box” and other places. I really think I am the morning show viewer, demo, everything. I love morning television, but I’m a heat-seeking missile for real news, and I just drifted.
TVWeek: Define “real news.”
Ms. Ross: Things that are new. One thing I discovered when I left network news, I thought I would have tremendous withdrawal. Then I found that I could actually be completely satisfied in getting my news and information online. I would just get the basics. But to really enjoy the experience … I would find certain things were a lot of fun on the financial news channels. Just different production. I think if it’s going to be just delivering the news, we can get it anywhere. What you want is analysis or something unforgettable, or just lots of tidbits.
TVWeek: A long list of producers has tried to get the CBS News morning show on a higher track over the decades. What will make the difference this time?
Ms. Ross: That you have to wait and see. Somebody said, “That show is cursed.” I don’t think it’s cursed, and there’s no reason it can’t be a competitor. I can’t speak to what other producers did or didn’t do. Believe me, it wasn’t about the anchors. The show had Diane Sawyer as an anchor, Bill Kurtis, Forrest Sawyer, Maria Shriver and Paula Zahn. These are all high-quality anchors. Bryant Gumbel and Jane Clayson. It’s had a long history of really great, great anchors. So, let’s see.
TVWeek: What must you accomplish here?
Ms. Ross: I need to get more viewers is the simple thing I must accomplish. Attract more viewers.
TVWeek: What will be your mantra as you retool “The Early Show”?
Ms. Ross: I’ve had so many mantras. My mantras are always my mantras. One of my mantras that everybody knows is, “Every day is sweeps.” That’s one of my favorite mantras. It means don’t think you’re planning exciting shows just three months out of the year. Every day is sweeps. Every day you’re knocking on the door for the next viewer. Every single day.
TVWeek: Is there anything you’ve been told you can’t do as you go to work on “The Early Show”?
Ms. Ross: No. I haven’t reviewed budgets or resources. Literally, this is the first day of school.
TVWeek: You really haven’t explored resources? That wasn’t a factor in your decision-making process?
Ms. Ross: Nope. I didn’t have to. I have a commitment from Sean that he would support what I wanted to do and he had his trust in me that I would have solid, sober requests. There’s a trust.



  2. Well, doesn’t seem like Shelley has learned anything
    after all. Yes, she can talk about herself
    quite fluently, but when it comes to the kind of
    person she is and how she treats people, even
    other hard driving media people bristle and flee from her range. Interesting that she describes her fun in morning media as the most that can be had “in the civilian” world.
    Sounds like she might like the thrill of
    military where she could actually go into combat
    and literally kill people rather than kill then
    professionally, financially, and psychologically.
    (heat seeking missle as she sees herself as, lol)

  3. Hi Harry , What would happen if EVERY voter did not vote? All this trash digging is something else. He who is without sin cast the fist stone.

  4. Once again this raving maniac has lost her job by imposing her outrageous and bullying management style on her co-workers. Hey Shelly…get the hint; nobody wants to work for a bully. You continue to self-destruct everywhere you go. It sad.

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