Ross’ Revamped ‘Early’ Premieres

Jan 6, 2008  •  Post A Comment

“The Early Show” senior executive producer Shelley Ross is the latest in a very long line of CBS News producers to attempt the Sisyphean task of rolling the morning show up the ratings hill. It’s had five decades of languishing in the cellar under a variety of names, formats and co-anchors.
This morning viewers got to see what’s been done to the “Early Show” studio at the southeast corner of Manhattan’s Central Park in recent weeks.
The most significant change won’t be readily apparent to most “Early Show” viewers in the country, but it was the hardest won. It involved a number of affiliates giving back the half-hour of the first hour of “Early” they had been granted in the 1990s as part of an extreme attempt to prop up clearances by stations.
The loss of so much national advertising time in the first hour and the resulting format contortions imposed ratings,, revenue and content challenges that became a serious competitive disadvantage for “The Early Show.” It was a handicap Sean McManus has been determined to remove since he added oversight of CBS News to his longtime responsibility as CBS Sports president a little more than two years ago.
For Mr. McManus, improvements to “The Early Show” ranked second only to launching “The CBS Evening News With Katie Couric.” After “Evening News” returned so quickly to a distant third place from its first-place debut, it became even more imperative for Mr. McManus to maximize the performance of “The Early Show” in the mornings—a daypart that has made NBC’s top-rated “Today” show and ABC’s second-place “Good Morning America” their respective network news divisions’ biggest cash cows.
The quietly determined Mr. Mc­Manus used all possible leverage to regain all but the standard local windows in “Early.” He then signed the famously competitive Ms. Ross—who had stopped a precipitous ratings drop at “GMA” with the anchor team of Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer in 1999, only to lose a power struggle less than six years later—to come back to the morning wars last September.
Affiliates on Board
Mr. McManus’ determination and Ms. Ross’ track record are key reasons that Scott Blumenthal, LIN Television’s executive VP of TV and chairman of the CBS affiliates association, is able to see the loss of valuable “Early” time in the short term as a chance for the network and stations to gain in the long term.
“The network is showing that they’re making a full-court press, that they’ve put together the best possible morning program they can. The executive producer certainly comes …
experience and success producing shows in that time period. I think she understands the morning audience, and I think the network is giving her the resources and the necessary support to let her do what she needs to do to create a product that can ultimately win in the time period. I think it’s the first time I’ve seen this kind of emphasis, this kind of talent and support in quite some time,” Mr. Blumenthal said.
“Clearly the 40-something stations that have switched from the blended format have some concerns, as they should,” he added. “On one side we certainly are nervous about possibly losing some audience in the interim, and loss of audience means loss of revenue. But by the same token, I appreciate that it was very difficult for them to try and produce a program that was competitive without having control of the content for the whole two hours. We will support them until there’s a reason not to.”
Mr. McManus and Ms. Ross said viewers aren’t being confronted with revolutionary change.
Still, Ms. Ross clearly means for it not to be “your grandma’s ‘Early Show’” or to be confused with other morning shows, whose graphics she feels suggest McDonald’s colors.
“I’ve stayed in the CBS iconic blue tones,” she said, “but I’ve moved it into the new morning millennia.”
Ms. Ross’ adventurous but hard news judgment and contacts are paying off with exclusives and a higher-voltage lineup.
“Early’s” ratings are flat year-to-year at a season-to-date average of 2.78 million viewers, while “Today” is down 4% to 5.55 million viewers and “GMA” is up 1% to nearly 5 million. In the 25-to-54 female demo that drives morning-show revenues, “Today” and “GMA” are flat; “Early” is up 9%.
Mr. McManus is said to be hopeful that “Early” will be able to post steady single-digit improvements.
“I don’t have great expectations with respect to any dramatic movement of the numbers, because I just don’t think in the morning that is really possible,” he said. “We just want to make sure we don’t make any mistakes, first and foremost, but it’s a lot easier to try and do things when you’re No. 3 than when you’re No. 1 or No. 2. And it’s even easier to try new things when you’ve been in this position for four or five decades. So I would say there’s less pressure on us with respect to the expectations than if we were trying to hold on No. 1.”


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