Affils mull a.m. switch

Low ratings plague revamped Early Show'on CBS

Continued poor ratings five months out of the box are leading CBS affiliates around the country and their advisors to rethink their commitment to the network's Early Show.

While the network sunk no lower than third place among the big three network morning entries-and that's where it's always been at that time of the morning-ratings for the $30 million revamp around former Today star Bryant Gumbel are actually 12% lower than a year ago. That's when lesser-known Jane Robelot and Mark McEwen were hosts of CBS'previous morning show. Its 3 million viewers are less than half of those for Today.

"How long can you go on hurting your own product?" said one consultant, who is advising client stations to consider options for the morning time slot. "And I don't see any improvement. Some of my stations can do better with their own local news."

None of the several station executives contacted said they were ready imminently to drop the show, citing network commitments, loyalty and faith in executive producer Steve Friedman.

Some said they went into their 7 a.m. slot with a top-rated local news show and returned at 9 with top-rated local news or syndicated programs. But in-between, a two-hour sinkhole has developed.

Although executives in a few markets said they were reasonably satisfied with the show's performance, and one who considered dropping it reported a February turnaround, several stations would prefer the pre-Early Show format that relied on local programming for much of the first hour.

"Many TV stations invested a lot of money four years ago when CBS gave the time back to them," said heavyweight consultant Jim Willi of AR & D. "Now that they've given it back, there is a lot of dissatisfaction with The Early Show.

"If I were at a CBS station, I'd certainly be looking at strengthening the local news again,''he said.

Peter Schruth, president of affiliate relations for CBS, said, "If someone comes to us and formally tells us they want to drop the show or cut back, we're going to have a reasonable discussion about the future of the show, and urge them to exercise restraint."

Schruth said that the network has gotten some calls in the past month, "asking us for our future plan for success. Everybody acknowledges it's a superior show in a lot of ways. We, like them, are mystified at the lack of ratings. But it's a work in progress, and our hopes are still very high."

Of course, not everyone finds the show superior, and some complain that it's merely an imitation of the shows that came before, on CBS and other networks.