Early Show rises again, again

CBS's latest rework of troubled program expected to focus on hard news

It's back to square one for The Early Show
on CBS, with the network expected to announce this week its plans for a new format and four new anchor people.

There has been speculation that CBS might unveil its new talent first but not be ready with a new format until December. But network sources say the new format with the new cast will launch at the start of the November sweeps.

The new anchor team is expected to include Harry Smith, who co-hosted CBS This Morning
in 1991-99; Hannah Storm, previously with NBC Sports; and Julie Chen, current news reader on The Early Show.

Sources indicate that the network has tapped its owned-station division for the fourth new co-host: Renee Syler, news anchor at KTVT(TV) Dallas.

In an effort to bring more on-air diversity to the program, CBS had been looking at several African-American women broadcasters for the fourth slot. Sources say it was in hot pursuit of Tamron Hall, co-host of Fox-owned WFLD(TV) Chicago's local morning news show but Fox wouldn't let her out of her contract. When Hall fell through, the network signed Syler, who is also African-American.

The network also considered Mallika Marshall (daughter of ABC's Carole Simpson), a Boston-based physician who does the Healthwatch
segment for the CBS-owned WBZ-TV in the market. CBS also looked at Alison Stewart, former co-anchor on the overnight news program at ABC. No comment from the network on talent or format details.

Sources at the network also denied speculation that the new format will resemble the light and chatty The View,
ABC's popular daytime show. CBS still intends to do a harder news show than either Today, the ratings leader among morning news shows, or second-place Good Morning America.

"It will be built around a team of equal anchors," says one source. "But they don't want this thing to be The View
or Entertainment Tonight."

Still to be worked out is the amount of time local stations will have to air local news and weather inserts. A committee of affiliate board members has met with key network officials (including CBS Television President Leslie Moonves, News president Andrew Heyward, Early Show
producer Michael Bass and affiliate relations head Peter Schruth) to discuss the direction of the show. Both sides say the meetings have been productive.

A major point of contention is the local/ national "co-op" broadcast (previously known as the "blended" broadcast) that a couple of dozen stations in mostly big markets (covering more than 40% of the country, according to one network source) air from 7 to 9 a.m. Stations carrying the co-op format air significantly more local content in the two-hour block than those carrying the standard broadcast. It was a format that the network came up with years ago, both to differentiate the broadcast from the competition and to dissuade CBS stations from abandoning the show altogether.

Now the network wants to abandon the co-op broadcast because it's a logistical nightmare from a network production standpoint.

According to Bob Lee, newly named chairman of the CBS television affiliates board of advisors, the affiliates that air the blended broadcast love it. The ratings explain why: They tend to do 50% or better in the ratings than those that air the standard program, he says.

"The network came up with this idea of a blended broadcast, and, lo and behold, it worked," he says. "It would be a huge mistake to give it up."

Indeed, Lee and his colleagues on the Affiliate Futures Committee have also urged the network to consider using locally produced segments as a regular part of the new broadcast. "We made a pretty good case that there are some CBS affiliates who could bring a lot to the table in terms of content that viewers across America would find beneficial," Lee says.

CBS's most ambitious plan to escape the early-morning cellar effectively ended in the spring with the departure of Bryant Gumbel, who launched the Early Show
three years ago with co-host Jane Clayson out of brand-new midtown-Manhattan studios created for the program.

The show made some slight gains in the key women demos, thanks to Clayson, who left two weeks ago. However, the show remains a distant third behind Today
and GMA
and often fourth behind local news competition.