11.30.10

Behind CBS' Morning Show Shakeup

Harry Smith and Maggie Rodriguez got axed from the Early Show Tuesday. Howard Kurtz talks to Smith and CBS News President Sean McManus about the perennial challenges of the low-rated show.

Harry Smith is sounding remarkably upbeat for a man who just got pushed out of his job.

“I took a long walk on a cold golf course on Sunday and realized I have an awful lot to be grateful for,” he told me hours after CBS announced that he is being replaced as co-host of the Early Show. “I’ve done morning television on CBS for 17 of the last 23 years. That’s a lot of miles, a lot of amazing destinations.” He recently found a photo of himself and Vaclav Havel, taken soon after the last president of Czechoslovakia was sworn in.

“There’s a part of me that wishes I could have done better for CBS in terms of making the needle move,” Smith says. “I gave it my best. I don’t have any regrets.”

Smith, co-host Maggie Rodriguez and weatherman Dave Price all lost their morning spots in the latest shakeup. They are being replaced by Chris Wragge, a local New York anchor who also co-hosts the Saturday Early Show; Erica Hill, who was seemingly being groomed after being lured from CNN last January; national correspondent Jeff Glor as news anchor, and Marysol Castro handling the weather.

CBS News President Sean McManus says in an interview that he was happy with the show’s content but that “it hasn’t made the kind of progress in the ratings we would like it to make.” He says he “felt it was time to get a new team in place, and I specifically picked people our audience is familiar with.” McManus says he has “watched the interaction and chemistry” between Wragge and Hill on Saturdays and during fill-in duty, “and I’ve been impressed.”

While news coverage is “vitally important,” McManus says, “just as important is the relationship and chemistry the anchors have.”

“If you’ve been a GMA family or a Today family, it’s tough to get those families to change.”

McManus went out of his way to praise the co-hosts he just dismissed, saying Smith will retain “a very prominent role” as primary substitute on the Evening News, Face the Nation and Sunday Morning and will take on more reporting. McManus says he is still discussing a future role for Rodriguez and that “Maggie is going to have a terrific career. This is not about any one anchor.” But there is no agreement that she will stay with the network.

Smith says he’ll miss doing newsmaker interviews at 7:03 each day, “stuff that makes the wires. You feel like you’re helping explain the world to people trying to get their families out the door.” He says there have been “editorial triumphs” over the years, “but we could never accumulate enough or get enough traction to make a difference.

“By and large,” he adds, “I’m not a morning person. But I played one on TV.”

Smith, who left what was then CBS This Morning in 1998 to work for A&E and the History Channel before returning in 2002, is nobody’s idea of a wild and crazy guy. He sometimes seemed more comfortable as an evening anchor than with the celebrity-heavy morning format. But when it comes to falling short at the breakfast hour, he has plenty of company.

Through endless iterations, the CBS program has been unable to generate much buzz or build a sizable audience. For the week of Nov. 15, Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira averaged 5.56 million viewers on NBC’s Today; George Stephanopoulos and Robin Roberts drew 4.64 million for ABC’s Good Morning America, and the Early Show trailed the pack with 2.93 million.

Rodriguez, a Univision alumnus and the daughter of Cuban immigrants, is a former Miami anchor courted by McManus—who is also president of CBS Sports—when he saw her doing live shots during the 2007 Super Bowl in that Florida city. She has booked exclusives with the likes of Levi Johnston.

But it may have been Mission Impossible, for the Early Show has tried every format under the sun. Julie Chen, the wife of CBS Chairman Les Moonves, was part of a four-person anchor team that always seemed unwieldy. An earlier iteration amounted to partial surrender, with CBS giving the second hour of each program back to local affiliates.

Going for starpower hasn’t worked: Bryant Gumbel failed to make the program competitive when he signed on well after his glory years at Today. “When I went to Today in 1982, the show had been established for 30 years and I was the new kid on the block,” Gumbel told me back in 1999. “Now it's completely reversed. The show is the brand-new entity, and the only thing anyone knows is me.” It wasn’t enough; he lasted 2-1/2 years.

Star producers haven’t worked: Steve Friedman twice took the Today show to No. 1 but couldn’t make a dent as the morning czar at CBS. A former Miss America didn’t work, despite the best efforts of Phyllis George.

A veritable parade of journalists—Maria Shriver, Bob Schieffer, Mariette Hartley, Sally Quinn, Forrest Sawyer, Kathleen Sullivan, Paula Zahn, Jane Clayson, Hannah Storm and Rene Syler—has trudged through the CBS studios at daybreak.

If you look at the basics, the program is not all that different from its rivals. It has a street-level studio at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South, an innovation pioneered by Today. It booked the same kinds of guests and covered the same kinds of stories, often of the tabloid variety. “If I were to program a show for my viewing pleasure, I would make it all news," Rodriguez told me last year. “But we're programming for all of America. We have to include Jon and Kate—regardless of whether I personally care, they're on the cover of every magazine.”

The trick was making enough viewers care, and that task now falls to Wragge and Hill. The problem is that the leading programs are institutions of sorts. Today, which debuted in 1952, has featured such hosts as Hugh Downs, Barbara Walters, Tom Brokaw, Jane Pauley and Katie Couric. GMA has produced ABC’s last two evening news anchors, Sawyer and Charlie Gibson, and has an anchor-in-waiting in Stephanopoulos.

McManus says ingrained viewing habits are a challenge. “If you’ve been a GMA family or a Today family, it’s tough to get those families to change,” he says. “We’ve had so many changes, a lot of inconsistencies in terms of who’s in front of the camera. It’s been a decades-long problem at CBS News, and one that we’re trying to fix.” Yet again.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.