After four years on the sidelines, morning-news pioneer Steve Friedman is back on the early shift as CBS News' VP of morning news. Among his challenges will be molding The Early Show, the third-placed network morning program, into a viable competitor to ABC News' Good Morning America and NBC's top-rated Today show. Friedman has done two tours as executive producer at Today, and, from 1999 to 2002, headed CBS' Early Show. Friedman talked to B&C's Allison Romano about CBS' challenges, the Katie Couric factor, and how to win morning news.
It's been four years since you left The Early Show , but the rankings remain the same. What needs to be done?
The people are a key element, and, beyond that, you have to have compelling stories and not be so complicated. Complicated stories do not work well in the morning. You are getting dressed; you're trying to get the kids off and trying to shave. You sometimes watch and don't listen or listen and don't watch. In the evening when you sit down, you are really watching, but in morning television, you have divided attentions. I say the simpler, the better.
The Early Show uses four anchors, which is not exactly simple. Do you need to make changes to the format?
No. I don't think you have to worry about how many people as what they do. And, for all the criticism of the multi-anchor format, we now see the others doing it. On GMA, you have Robin Roberts, Diane Sawyer, Charlie Gibson and Bill Weir. Certainly, at the three-hour Today, they do a multi-anchor format, and now Natalie Morales is there most days from 9 to 10 a.m.
Viewers are watching less evening news, but the local early news and network morning shows keep growing. What's driving the demand?
People are waking up earlier and want to be smart when they leave. Also, a lot of the issues that other dayparts face are not affecting morning television.
You're also not going to get up in the morning and watch an HBO movie at 7 a.m., even if you have time. It is hard to use the computer and spread peanut butter at the same time. It is addictive if it is part of your routine. That's why morning television is so interesting.
You have a long history with Katie Couric. Is she leaving Today ?
It's not something I have anything to do with or can control. You have to worry about your own show and not the what if, how will it, how can I?
You cannot spend all your time looking at the other guy and not yourself. My job is the same no matter what Katie does: I have to make this show compelling, the fastest out of the gate, more current than the others.
At NBC, you created the street-front studio. Then came outdoor concerts and cooking segments. Does the flash and entertainment overwhelm the news?
It shouldn't, but sometimes it does. If the atmosphere you're in becomes too overwhelming, it can be counterproductive. On the other hand, the atmosphere is terrific if it helps heighten the experience. Sometimes it really adds a lot and sometimes it doesn't.
You have four jobs to do in morning television. First, to tell people what happened after they went to bed. The second thing is, you have to give people something in their lives they can use. When they watch these programs, they want to get some benefits from it. If you can tell them how to spend their money, what medicines to buy, how to handle their kids, that is very important.
The third thing is, you have to make sure when they leave the house, they are smarter. No one wants to be dumb at work or at school. The final thing is that mornings are very stressful. There is never enough time; you have to give people something to smile about and to feel good about. If you do those four things in a coherent package, you will ultimately do well in morning news.