In the Game
CBS trusts Michael Bass to keep Early Show competitive
By Allison Romano -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/19/2004 8:00:00 PM
As an Olympic researcher at the 1984 games, it was Michael Bass' job to profile athletes and document the history of various events. He loved uncovering stories of unknown stars and unsung heroes. Sixteen years later, as senior executive producer for CBS's The Early Show, he is championing the underdog of morning news. Though still in third place behind NBC's Today and ABC's Good Morning America, it enjoys healthy ratings growth. "We still have a long way to go," says Bass, "but nobody writes 'the struggling Early Show' anymore."
He charts his own broadcast ascendancy from the 1988 Olympics.
In Seoul, Bass wrote segments for Today show star Bryant Gumbel. The anchor took a liking to his young producer and invited Bass to work on Today. A second Olympics producer teamed with Jane Pauley, now-NBC Universal Television Group President Jeff Zucker, received a similar offer. (The two met when working on the Harvard college newspaper; both would eventually executive-produce Today.)
Bass, who dreamed of being a sports writer, grew up in Massachusetts, where his parents were journalists at the small, prize-winning Berkshire Eagle newspaper. The family got its morning news on the radio, but TV would define their son's future. Sports provides excellent training for morning news, says Bass. "Both are all about storytelling: what makes a good story, human drama and how to present it."
When Bass first joined Today in 1989, the show wasn't the juggernaut it is now. Then-executive producer Steve Friedman directed Today's assault, clawing away at ABC's No. 1 Good Morning America.
"I learned about the intensity of the competition, how important ratings, the bookings, 'the get' all were," Bass says. When Zucker took over as executive producer, Today continued to climb. "We destroyed the competition for so long and always put on a quality show," says Bass.
Yet he kept his Olympics ties, producing Today's coverage at the 1996 and 2000 Summer Games. Some of his most memorable contributions to Today, however, weren't sports-related. When Today needed a clever idea to take the show on the road, Zucker turned to Bass. The kids TV show Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? was the inspiration for "Where in the World Is Matt Lauer?," a segment in which co-host Lauer travels the world in a week. Bass accompanied Lauer on the first two trips, to Mount Everest and the Great Wall of China. In 1999, he planned and launched the third hour of Today.
"Michael is incredibly smart, quick and even-tempered," says Zucker. "He is a great writer and a very good television producer."
Bass became Today's acting executive producer in late 2000 but left the network in May 2001. About that time, CBS News President Andrew Heyward needed an executive to revamp his troubled morning show. After so many successful years at NBC, Bass "was the right person to turn our morning fortunes around," says Heyward. "He has strong news judgment as well as a great feel for popular culture and stories that resonate with the morning audience."
For the first time, Bass got to build and run the show.
To attract new viewers, Early Show needed something different. The solution: a four-anchor format with Julie Chen, Hannah Storm, Rene Syler and Harry Smith. All would be equal, says Bass, but viewers could attach themselves to someone.
He pushed for more interplay and conversation between the hosts yet retained the classic morning-show tone: news mixed with human interest and entertainment.
Even with The Early Show's improved ratings, Bass admits taking Today or GMA down will be tremendously difficult. For now, he relishes the early gains. "We are in the game," he says, "and that is the biggest accomplishment."
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