Early gets a wake-up call

Revamped CBS morning newscast hopes to do something new: Succeed
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Will twice as many anchors do the trick for The Early Show
on CBS? Michael Bass is firmly convinced it will. But he has to be: He's the executive producer of the broadcast and was a key architect of its new format, which will debut next Monday.

Bass spent much of his time over the summer looking not just for a diverse set of anchors but for a group that would generate that elusive quality known as "chemistry" that seems to attract viewers. That chemistry has been incredibly hard to find over the years at CBS, which has ripped through a series of anchor teams and formats. Whether Bass this time has a group that will gel on the air obviously remains to be seen.

The big difference in the new format will be the presentation of four anchors of equal stature. The dedicated news reader and weatherman are gone. All the anchors will share equally in presenting news stories and conducting interviews, says Bass. Another opportunity, he says, is to send one of the anchors to the hot story of the day or week. That's a tougher thing to do with just two anchors, because, in effect, "you split the show in half" and tend to overplay stories to justify the traveling anchor's presence there.

Many of the current special contributors remain in place—not Martha Stewart, for now, however—and Bass said some new hires are imminent.

There will be some new wrinkles. One new segment, called "water cooler," will give the hosts time to chat about some hot topics, more or less informally.

New anchors Harry Smith, Julie Chen and Hannah Storm are all nationally known personalities but not breakout stars. One source's reaction last week to the news: "I'm not exactly jumping up and down saying, oh, my God, they got Harry Smith! How on earth did they do that?" Nevertheless, CBS loves him, and so do many of the network's viewers. Bass says the network "got a ton of e-mails" applauding when Smith served as guest anchor over the summer.

Of course, René Syler, a Dallas news personality, is the least well-known nationally. When CBS confirmed her participation last week, affiliates consulted their Nielsen books to see how her noon and 6 p.m. broadcasts did in May at KTVT(TV). The ratings didn't impress: The 6 p.m. newscast was fourth with a 1.8 rating/3 share (households); the noon newscast was second, 5 share points behind WFAA-TV.

"I'm amazed that's the best they could do" was the reaction of one affiliate executive. "I don't see a major draw there, and I'm very concerned."

Overall, the reaction is mixed. On the one hand, the network has always been an also-ran in the daypart, and many big-market stations want the time back to program themselves. On the other hand, the basic relationship with the network is fairly good, and affiliates appreciate the recent gains the network has made in prime time.

The network just won't give up in the morning. There's too much money to be made: Today, the time-period leader, generates a reported $450 million in revenue a year.

Bob Lee, who runs WDBJ(TV) Roanoke, Va., and heads the CBS affiliate advisory board, said he was encouraged by the network's willingness to meet with a committee of station executives to discuss the new format.

In fact, says Bass, those meetings led to his decision to create a regular segment on the broadcast to showcase stories from affiliates around the country. "We have strong affiliate stations, and that has been a missed opportunity."

For now, stations that are programming the show's more locally focused "co-op" format can continue to do so for now. Ultimately, though, the network wants to get rid of the format because it is less flexible from a production standpoint.

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