Programming

In a Flyover State: How CBS Could Wake Up Its Mornings

1/24/2011 12:01:00 AM Eastern

All seven of my regular readers of this column know I
like to stop every once in a while and toss around some
of my own stupid ideas, to combat my pet peeve about
journalists who sit around all day trashing everyone
else's stupid ideas, but never have the guts to put forth
any of their own.

So, for some time now, I’ve been mulling a new play
for CBS in the mornings, one that would completely
upset the morning television apple cart and put the network
on the map in a big, big way.

Here goes.
I would still air the current version of The Early Show
at 7 a.m. and let it do battle with (and take the brunt
of) the established powerhouse first hours of Today and
Good Morning America.

And then at either 8 a.m. or 9 a.m.—and that strategy
may have changed last week when Regis made his
announcement—I would roll out my big guns. I would
program a Live! knockoff for an hour or two, and it
would star Katie Couric and Craig Ferguson. And it
would be a massive, massive hit.

Yes, it sounds ridiculous. Yes, it would leave two gaping
holes elsewhere in CBS’ schedule.

So what? Make big plays. This is broadcast TV and
CBS is #1 in most categories, and Les Moonves has
never been one to rest on his laurels. Mornings is something
CBS just hasn’t been able to figure out, and CBS
should be better. This would be a loud, big-tent move.
Plus a new, huge hit in the mornings wouldn’t hurt at
retrans time. So let’s break this down a little.

Katie Couric and the ‘Evening News’

I’m not really sure you need to say much more than “Katie
Couric” and “mornings” to know the impact she would
have and the massive buzz her return to anywhere in the
morning would create. Yes, Today has done more than just
fine with Meredith Vieira, but Katie is still a morning star.
It’s OK to say she has been playing out of position on the
CBS Evening News. That’s not a knock on Katie.

From syndication to staying at CBS News, Couric is
getting showered with opportunities as her contract
comes up. While her ratings have never reached what
CBS hoped for in the Evening News slot, her show now is
not much different than what you see on NBC and ABC
in terms of quality.

Given that, and the fact that the evening news genre
itself is not growing anytime soon, CBS could find
someone to replace Couric and not take much of a hit
there at all. In fact, it’s pretty obvious CBS brass is already
considering what they will do if she moves off of
Evening News
, or even off of CBS, period.

Craig Ferguson and 12:35

If you haven’t seen Craig Ferguson’s 12:35 a.m. show
after Letterman, you are missing some fun. Before he
brings out a guest, it is closer to cable access TV than to
Johnny Carson, and that is meant as a compliment. It is
self-deprecating, creative as hell, and either brilliant or
stupid, depending on your opinion and possibly your
pharmacist.

Ferguson has not made his name in late night with
huge guest bookings á la Leno and Letterman, or the often
brilliant and buzz-worthy taped comedy of a Jimmy
Kimmel. People who tune in do so for Craig. They buy
into him so much that they (okay, we) laugh at a ridiculous
dancing horse and a robot skeleton that throws out
the same lines constantly.

Anyway, despite Ferguson’s success in late night, I
have always thought his sensibility and ability to play
to (and with) the camera would absolutely kill in daytime.
He has the perfect personality for that femaleheavy
audience.

Yes, it would create a big hole at 12:35. But CBS—and
Worldwide Pants—have proven they are up to that challenge.
Plus, if CBS really wants Jon Stewart to replace
Letterman one day, Ferguson going big in the mornings
could eliminate a sticky situation with Craig wanting
Dave’s chair. This is smart, because we all know how
well planning your late-night moves five years out works.

Speaking of which, while Late Night World War II
recently made for a great Bill Carter book, the fact is
the late-night genre is only getting more fragmented
and the economics are getting tougher and tougher to
make work.

Why It Would Work

The idea really hit me watching a recent Couric appearance
on Ferguson. The chemistry between the two
jumped through the TV, and they played fantastically
well off of each other.

But I would not just throw them to the dogs at 7 a.m.
and use them in a typical morning-show format—and
I doubt Katie would want to. That’s why I would blatantly
rip off the Regis and Kelly feel: Open with banter
about current events and everything going on in their
lives, and then bring in some guests later.

They can both be silly, they can both interview, and
they can both connect with that target audience. And
when needed, Katie can carry the load on any hard
news and more serious stuff, though again, that is not
the crux of this show.

Initially, I thought about bringing them on at 8
a.m.—where nothing new really starts. But then Regis
announced last week he was calling it quits. If I am
CBS, I smell blood in the water, so I may think about
trying to step on the throat of Live! and go at 9.

There are plenty of more grounded reasons why this
idea is among my worst (and that says something), from
the two holes it would leave on CBS to the money it
would cost to pay these two in that daypart.

Except there’s this one thing in its favor: The show
would be fantastic, a huge hit, and would finally give
CBS something that works in the mornings, one of the
few places the often top-rated network hasn’t lived up
to its crown.

E-mail comments to
bgrossman@nbmedia.com
and follow him on Twitter: @BCBenGrossman

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