Morning Snooze


Never before has there been such upheaval in morning television. With two of the three players in the throes of major change, the high-stakes game of network morning shows is as close to a free-for-all as it has ever been. Why, then, are ABC and CBS sleeping through this long-awaited opportunity to unseat morning leader NBC?

At stake is well north of $1 billion in advertising revenue. According to Nielsen Monitor-Plus, NBC’s Today booked half of that, some $554 million, last year. But suddenly, that morning cash is up for grabs. The Katie Couric era on Today is over, and Meredith Vieira has yet to arrive.

At second-place ABC, Charles Gibson has departed Good Morning America to anchor the evening newscast. Meanwhile, at CBS’ Early Show, longtime veteran of the genre Steve Friedman returned last March in hopes of jolting the perennial also-ran out of last place.

With so much in flux, you would think that everyone would be jockeying furiously for position. But the competition looks surprisingly flat-footed and ill-prepared for the promotional onslaught that NBC is planning for its morning money machine come fall.

Most alarming has been ABC’s seemingly lackadaisical approach to GMA. A scant year ago, the show was fast on the heels of Today. After years of chipping away at NBC’s lead, it looked primed to slip into the No. 1 slot. But then the place seemed to run out of steam. Executive producer Ben Sherwood announced his departure only two months ago, but insiders say he had mentally left the building long before that.

It wasn’t until last week that ABC got around to putting its new management team—senior executive producer Jim Murphy and his No. 2 Tom Cibrowski—into place. Good choices but ones that should have been made weeks ago, giving them a chance to settle in and prepare for game time in September.

Even worse, no one has been selected to replace Gibson, who has already given a boost to the ratings at World News since he was named anchor in May. World News’ gain is definitely GMA’s loss. Gibson is to GMA what the late Jerry Orbach was to NBC’s Law & Order: His work is so understated and adroit that you don’t realize how crucial he is to a franchise’s success until he’s gone.

True, GMA co-host Diane Sawyer is undeniably a news superstar, but she and co-host Robin Roberts are sure to be eclipsed by the easy compatibility of Vieira and Matt Lauer unless they get someone else in there to complete the picture. And quite frankly, none of the candidates GMA has been trying out – Chris Cuomo, Bill Ritter and Bill Weir—seem like much of a wake-up draw.

The hapless Early Show—saddled with a cumbersome four-host format and outmoded relationships with affiliates that allow too much of the broadcast to be dumped for local news—is in even more dire straits.

Unfortunately for Friedman and his able No. 2, Michael Bass, CBS News has the resources to relaunch only one show this fall, CBS Evening With Katie Couric. Word in the industry is that CBS Corp. is spending $13 million above and beyond its network’s own broadcast venues and billboard properties to promote the Couric newscast.

With rivals like these, NBC just might end up with an even more gargantuan piece of the billion-dollar morning pie than it already enjoys.

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