Almost three years into a complete overhaul of CBS This Morning, the newscast’s content is where it should be, says Chris Licht, CBS News VP and executive producer of the program. Now it’s just a matter of getting people to watch.
“The biggest challenge is getting what you do in front of people,” Licht told B&C editor-in-chief Melissa Grego, during B&C/Multichannel News’ Business of Live TV Summit on Sept. 30 in New York.
Licht, the overseer of MSNBC’s freewheeling Morning Joe before shifting to CBS, was given a clean slate to build a new morning show. “We absolutely blew up the whole thing,” said Licht, who acknowledged not even knowing CBS had an a.m. newscast when he was growing up. The guiding principles were to honor the legacy of CBS News and forget morning newscasts ever existed while reimagining a program for the modern age.
Despite the show's progress, Licht admits ratings are not yet where he'd like them to be. "It kills me to be in third [place]," he admitted.
Licht is leading CBS News' midterm Elec- tion Night coverage in November, and he said that is getting an over- haul too. "It will look very different than what CBS did in the last election," he said. "More people, more energy, more around the studio, more live...just more."
An edited transcript of the Q&A follows:
Let’s start by talking about CBS This Morning, which you came to CBS to do, you left NBC. You were asked to take the No. 3 morning show and reimagine it in the CBS News brand. How’s it going so far?
Fantastic, other than we’re still in third place. But [chairman, CBS News, executive producer, 60 Minutes] Jeff Fager and [president, CBS News] David Rhodes, when they took over the news division, one of the first things they set their eyes on [was]: we want to make the morning show in the image of 60 Minutes, CBS Evening News, but still be a morning show, and that was about the guidance I got. And we absolutely blew up everything and I think most importantly we sat in a room and imagined if there had never been a morning show before, what would you do, how would you build it, what kind of culture would you build with the staff? We spent weeks sort of game planning, well would we cover this story, how would we cover this story, do you need a news reader, do you need weather, what would you do if there had never been a Today Show or GMA?…. It was a very nurturing environment at CBS where it’s like, look it’s still a network broadcast but you’re a distant third place, try some different things, have some fun, and we built a staff that very much felt like a startup, we felt like we were working on a political campaign. It was really, still is, sort of invigorating and a really fun show to do very morning.
Did you see being in third as an advantage?
No absolutely not. There is no advantage whatsoever of being in third. It defies every ounce of my being to be in third; the only advantage is it prevents you from sort of having paralysis of being in first, where you can’t really change anything because if it’s not broken don’t fix it and that prevents you from evolving. We don’t have any of those problems. If something needs to change, we just change it.
There’s no, "that’s always the way we’ve done it," because we’ve only been on the air for two seasons. And when we hire someone new and they go, “Have you thought of doing it this way?” We go, “Oh no, let’s try.” While that part is very freeing and great to be part of a team that has that vibe, there’s nothing good about being in third place.
How do you define success at this point?
When we started the show, the success was measured in are we going to be competitive and relevant? Competitive in bookings, stories, breakage stories, just being part of the conversation. I think anyone in the business knows that is the toughest thing.
You have to be relevant, you have to be part of the conversation, you have to have a reason for being on television every day, and that’s the competitive and relevant part.
I think we have been very successful at that. That is, those of you who live in New York, I grew up, I didn’t even think they did morning shows on channel 2. For decades, it just wasn’t part of the conversation, and I feel like that’s sort of been the first measure of success that because we have a great team of Charlie [Rose] and Norah [O’Donnell] and Gayle [King] that we are definitely part of that conversation, and the good news is I think a lot of people haven’t sampled us yet.
Anyone out there who has ever started your own thing, whether it’s a business or a TV [show] or anything, it takes a good year and half, sometimes longer, to really get into your rhythm, get into a groove. I feel like we’re finally in that rhythm, finally a well-oiled machine behind the scenes that the talent has really jelled, and now the biggest challenge is: How do you get what we do in front of people?
We did some focus groups on marketing, we don’t do it on content, it’s just not even discussed at CBS, but marketing, sure. You want to get people’s vibe, and what they’re feeling in the morning, and I sat and watched and this gentleman said, “I’ve been watching this morning show for 25 years” and went on for 10 minutes on the soliloquy of what he didn’t like about it, the one that he watches. And someone at the table across from him said, “Well why don’t you watch CBS in the morning? They have this, this and this and they don’t do that.” He goes, “They have a show in the morning?”
So that’s our biggest challenge right now, the measure of success, once you’re competitive and relevant that’s nice and everyone at cocktail parties on the Upper West Side says, “Well that’s a nice broadcast” but you have to get the ratings and you have to get the numbers.
We have the most people watching that have ever watched CBS in the morning in 20 years. So that’s good, it’s moving in the right direction, but we’ve got a long way to go on that.
CBS has a great history of being an underdog and then becoming the champion as a network. Do you feel pressure to do that and is that what you see happening?
Honestly the biggest pressure I feel is, Jeff Fager emails me about what he thinks of the show. And that’s the biggest pressure you have, are you living up? We’re the next show up after Evening News, we’re the next show up after 60 Minutes, are we living up to that standard?
Because of that, yep the ratings matter, I don’t want to downplay that, but day-to-day my life is, whether it’s a good day or bad day, will be: Do David and Jeff think we represented the network in a good way? Because that’s what we have planted our flag on.
Let’s talk about the importance of brands in news today. Like you said, when you were a kid you didn't even know there was a morning show on channel 2 but I know the NBC News brand meant a lot to you. Do you think news brands mean today to kids and younger viewers what they meant to you?
I think there’s much less brand loyalty. You just have to consistently put out compelling content. The demo, they don’t care who interviewed Assad, or they don’t know if Charlie works for CBS, NBC or ABC, but there’s a brand of Charlie, and if I can associate that brand and that content with CBS, then that will hopefully build that expectation. … I will say in a biased way there is no finer news brand than CBS, and I think the more that is out there the better for us, because there is a lot of noise online, and these are certainly valid sources of information, but if you really need to know a trusted name, you’re gonna go to one of the big three, and of the big 3 CBS has a great brand.
When was the last time something big broke while you were in the CBS This Morning telecast?
Aurora really kind of broke when we were in the telecast, obviously Boston, the Boston search for the bombing suspects broke during the broadcast. I don’t really want to talk about that, because I was in Paris on an anniversary trip with my wife who works for CNN and said we shouldn’t have gone on in the first place because the bombing suspects were still on the loose. So she was correct, we were in a Paris hotel room watching on CNN, just killing you that you weren’t there. But yeah, the breaking news is really on the network is a completely different experience because the bar is obviously much higher because you break in and do rolling coverage. Newtown kind of broke on our watch and Aurora and Boston.
How much do you change the protocol for how to handle breaking news as the environment changes? For example, we’ve never had more competitive players in news, anybody can distribute information instantly, digitally; obviously there have been a lot of cases where there have been incorrect things reported and when people don’t get the balance right between being first and being right. Has that process changed quickly in the last few years?
I think there’s a different level of expectation. I think the audience when they’re watching a network broadcast is less interested in who’s first and more interested in who’s right. There’s the old saying, “no one will remember who’s first but they’ll remember who’s wrong.”
And we very much have a series of protocols in place where you don’t go with something until you know. The standard doesn’t change whether you’re in live rolling coverage or if it’s a planned newscast as far as what you report, how you report it, what picture you show, all of that stuff. It’s a little different, local news and cable, and that’s not in a bad way, I just think there’s a different level of expectation, you can be much more transparent about, look this is coming in... because the audience is kind of along for the ride and some of my most fun moments in a control room were when you’re just along for a ride and the audience is watching and they are finding out the information as you’re finding it out.
At the network there’s a different level of expectation that you’re gonna take a breath, assimilate all your facts, double source it, get your correspondents on the same page, and then you can wait to broadcast something that may be going on cable as it happens.
Let’s talk about election coverage. [Licht is producing CBS News’ election night coverage for the midterms.]
We’re starting rehearsals this week. What we’re going try to do differently is be as inclusive as possible of all the CBS news brands, and all the CBS News talent. So that’s something different, and it will involve a lot more people and we’re going to do it in the CBS This Morning studio. So that’s a much bigger venue and it’s gonna be fun. The way my process works, you don’t really do it on paper, you just throw people out for the rehearsal and you just kind of see what works and what doesn’t work.
I literally have to see it to know if it has a chance of working actually on television. 80% of what I think will work on paper or in my head doesn’t work. My anchors are so pissed because they’ll have two rehearsals a week for the next 6 weeks, but that’s my process….I think it will look very different from what CBS did the last election. I haven’t seen the other guys, I always watched MSNBC when I was there because it was much more freewheeling so I know a little different than what CBS did two years ago, but more people, more energy, more all-around studio, more live, just more. Without being superfluous, just more. Maybe that’s our slogan, “more.”
As far as calling that stuff, like you said, double sourcing things, calling election races has—
—I have nothing to do with that. We have a decision desk. Thankfully. Can you imagine what a horrible job that is, calling elections?
The elections of course are special, scheduled live news programming in primetime. But is it my imagination or are we seeing more network special reports breaking in these days? And do you have any involvement in making those calls?
I think we all do. It’s sort of a group process. But the affiliates like it. The affiliates want breaking news coverage if it’s worth it. There’s a ridiculous statistic I wish I had but at this point last year we had done hours and hours of breaking news coverage because there was so much crazy breaking news… this year, it was in minutes not hours. They (affiliates) want breaking news and special reports when it’s warranted, and they really don’t if it’s not.
The bar is so high to break in. But by the way, talking about thrills in live TV, there’s very few things as cool as breaking into the network, giving that command, break into the network.
When you’re looking to hire people to come work for you, what are the things you look for?
The first thing is have they drank the cool-aid. Am I one of like five places they’ve come in and said they love that morning show, or do they watch it and can recite back to you every little nuance and obviously have a love of the broadcast?
The people who work on CBS This Morning are true believers who have a love of what we’re doing in the morning, and anyone who’s ever had anything to do with a morning show knows, you need to have that love because it’s a killer, the hours just suck, and you spend a lot of time with these people.
So we have positions that have gone unfilled for months not because we don’t want to spend the money but because we haven’t found someone who's gonna click with the rest of the group; that’s so important because you can have someone who may be the greatest booker in the world, but if they’re a dick, you know, it doesn’t help you out.
So the first thing I look for is, are you a true believer? And are you gonna bring something different to the table?
One of my favorite new employees is a guy we hired who’s 24 years old, and had done two tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, and wants to go back as a war producer, but knows he has to learn television first. And he has a background and a skill that no one of the hundred plus employees I have has, and we sent him down to the hard news center where they cut all the video, and he’s like, yeah, no one’s shooting at me, so this is fun. He brings a completely different perspective.
How did you find him?
He applied, just through the normal process. We have a news associate program as well, which brings in really, really diverse in every sense of the word candidates—they do rotations, it’s almost like the page program at other places—and it’s like a 90% hire rate I think, like we want 90% of them to stay with us because they’re just great. ... But also, you need people of all ages and of all backgrounds. So once you get past, what are you gonna bring to the table? What are you gonna add to the group that’s a different perspective or just will them benefit our team as a whole?
You’ve learned a lot of what works and what doesn’t in live television, particularly breaking news. So, if you can offer us some do’s and don’ts and let’s start with the don’ts.
Well from a producing standpoint, I made a lot of my mistakes at KNBC in Los Angeles, which was a hell of a large station to make mistakes on but somehow I got through it.
The first mistake I made was when a guy took the shotgun out and blew his head off, and that was like 3 in the afternoon when kids were home and everything, and I was in the control room. I’m like 22 years old, and I’m like, wow, that guy has a gun. And I’m watching it instead of producing it.
So that was a very early thing I learned: You have to not only watch but you have to produce, because I got caught being a viewer and I got really caught up in what was happening and I didn’t say let’s pull back, let’s go to black, let’s do anything other than show that. And of course it’s the one time our chopper had the best shot. At every other breaking news story, our chopper had the horrible shot. But no on this time our chopper had the perfect shot.
How do you do that in your mind, in your brain, to switch so you’re not sucked into the story…?
It goes to my second point which is you’ve got to be calm. And I am anything but calm during a broadcast, I would equate it to how a basketball coach is on the sidelines, how you’re yelling stuff, but when breaking news happens, you have to be calm…you have got to just go to a place where you can be calm, because then everyone else around you will be calm, and then things get on television the right way and you make less mistakes.
As frenetic as things are, as fast as things are, as much as the director has to move very quickly, talent has to say things the right way, you’ve got to be calm. That just takes a long time to hone that skill.
But what works in live television I think is to be as authentic as possible. That the audience has become sophisticated enough that they know when you’re playing TV, they know when something isn’t authentic, and they have a lot of forgiveness for you in a breaking news situation or a live TV situation if you’re being transparent, and that also means it allows you to have unexpected things happen.
As a producer, you don’t want to manufacture moments but you want to step back and let moments develop. That was the key of Morning Joe, that was the key to my talent as CBS This Morning, you kind of get out of the way and let it happen, because the worst thing you can be in television is predictable and boring, and live TV gives you that ability to not be boring.
Charlie Rose, Gayle King, I know 50% of the time what’s going to come out of their mouth. I mean, Gayle King says exactly what she thinks all the time immediately on television. And that’s fun, but you have to be able to react to it, and you have to be able to set up and have time for these things to develop.