Tuesday, October 31, 2000
New York "The Early Show" celebrates its first anniversary Wednesday and its biggest victory may be that none of the CBS stations that aired the debut have abandoned it.
It's been a rocky return to morning television for Bryant Gumbel, whose audience for "The Early Show" is smaller after one year than it was for the news program it replaced.
That's not nearly what CBS had in mind after building a $30 million Manhattan studio and teaming Gumbel with newcomer Jane Clayson and executive producer Steve Friedman, his former partner on NBC's dominant "Today" show.
"Are we happy? No," said Alan Bell, president of Freedom Broadcasting, a company that owns five CBS stations. "Is CBS happy? No. That's the easy part. The tough part of the discussion is what do you do."
Despite some grumbling, none of the 186 stations that air all or part of "The Early Show" have quit. That's an accomplishment, since some had to be persuaded to come on board because they carried successful local news programs in the time slot.
Friedman said "The Early Show" has given CBS the first credible alternative in years to "Today" and ABC's "Good Morning America."
"You may not like what we do," he said. "But nobody's calling this show a joke."
Monday's show, during which Gumbel interviewed Hillary Rodham Clinton, is an indication that the show is taken seriously by newsmakers, he said.
The ratings received a brief bump this summer when "The Early Show" regularly featured stories on "Survivor." Some critics considered it overkill, and newsreader Julie Chen was also sharply criticized for her role on the entertainment show "Big Brother."
Friedman said that "The Early Show" missed no big stories and that he considered the heavy emphasis on CBS prime-time shows no different from "Today" spending three weeks in Sydney for the Olympics.
Bell said that CBS stations "have nothing to be ashamed of with this show."
CBS has had a nearly 50-year history of ratings failure in the time slot. The network's past instability in the morning may be why many stations are being patient now, Bell said.
Network executives are also getting a grace period because of their prime-time success, he said.
"My heart, in a sense, goes out to my partners at CBS," he said. "What they're trying to do is climb a very steep mountain under very intense weather conditions."