As an Olympic researcher at the 1984 games, it was Michael Bass' job to
profile athletes and document the history of various events. He loved
uncovering stories of unknown stars and unsung heroes. Sixteen years later, as
senior executive producer for CBS's The Early
Show, he is championing the underdog of morning news. Though still
in third place behind NBC's Today and ABC's
Good Morning America, it enjoys healthy
ratings growth. "We still have a long way to go," says Bass, "but nobody writes
'the struggling Early Show' anymore."
He charts his own broadcast ascendancy from the 1988 Olympics.
In Seoul, Bass wrote segments for Today show star Bryant Gumbel. The anchor took a
liking to his young producer and invited Bass to work on
Today. A second Olympics producer teamed
with Jane Pauley, now-NBC Universal Television Group President Jeff Zucker,
received a similar offer. (The two met when working on the Harvard college
newspaper; both would eventually executive-produce Today.)
Bass, who dreamed of being a sports writer, grew up in Massachusetts,
where his parents were journalists at the small, prize-winning
Berkshire Eagle newspaper. The family got
its morning news on the radio, but TV would define their son's future. Sports
provides excellent training for morning news, says Bass. "Both are all about
storytelling: what makes a good story, human drama and how to present it."
When Bass first joined Today in 1989,
the show wasn't the juggernaut it is now. Then-executive producer Steve
Friedman directed Today's assault, clawing
away at ABC's No. 1 Good Morning America.
"I learned about the intensity of the competition, how important
ratings, the bookings, 'the get' all were," Bass says. When Zucker took over as
executive producer, Today continued to
climb. "We destroyed the competition for so long and always put on a quality
show," says Bass.
Yet he kept his Olympics ties, producing Today's coverage at the 1996 and 2000 Summer Games.
Some of his most memorable contributions to Today, however, weren't sports-related. When
Today needed a clever idea to take the show
on the road, Zucker turned to Bass. The kids TV show Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? was the
inspiration for "Where in the World Is Matt Lauer?," a segment in which co-host
Lauer travels the world in a week. Bass accompanied Lauer on the first two
trips, to Mount Everest and the Great Wall of China. In 1999, he planned and
launched the third hour of Today.
"Michael is incredibly smart, quick and even-tempered," says Zucker. "He
is a great writer and a very good television producer."
Bass became Today's acting executive
producer in late 2000 but left the network in May 2001. About that time, CBS
News President Andrew Heyward needed an executive to revamp his troubled
morning show. After so many successful years at NBC, Bass "was the right person
to turn our morning fortunes around," says Heyward. "He has strong news
judgment as well as a great feel for popular culture and stories that resonate
with the morning audience."
For the first time, Bass got to build and run the show.
To attract new viewers, Early Show
needed something different. The solution: a four-anchor format with Julie Chen,
Hannah Storm, Rene Syler and Harry Smith. All would be equal, says Bass, but
viewers could attach themselves to someone.
He pushed for more interplay and conversation between the hosts yet
retained the classic morning-show tone: news mixed with human interest and
Even with The Early Show's improved
ratings, Bass admits taking Today or
GMA down will be tremendously difficult. For
now, he relishes the early gains. "We are in the game," he says, "and that is
the biggest accomplishment."