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11.16.11

CBS's Morning-Show Gamble With Charlie Rose and Gayle King

Charlie Rose and Gayle King meet the press as the network tries again to create a viable breakfast show. Howard Kurtz on whether the effort to 'reshape morning television' with a serious newscast has a shot.

Gayle King had just finished an animated spiel about joining CBS’s new morning show when Charlie Rose jumped in with a story.

He was at a conference, see, and Gayle was there—

King cut him off: “I thought you were going to say we were lovers.”

It was a nice moment of chemistry between the two new additions to The Early Show—but moments later, reporters learned that King will mainly lead the 8 a.m. hour, with Rose and current co-host Erica Hill kicking off the program at 7. So they won’t be sharing all that much airtime.

The question that hung in the air at Tuesday’s news conference is how these disparate personalities—and conceptual pieces—will fit together, and whether CBS can finally field a morning show that can compete with Today and Good Morning America.

King was the funniest, liveliest, and most personal. “I had goose bumps, honest, guys, when I walked in this building,” she said. She was wearing an aquamarine dress that her wardrobe person warned was too tight and “you need to put on an extra pair of Spanx”—leading to her confession to the audience that “I can’t breathe.” Oh, and she got an email “from my ex-husband, wishing me well.”

If morning TV is about sharing, Oprah Winfrey’s best friend is going to do just fine. (Will the talk-show queen be a guest? “It would be foolish to say Oprah will never be a guest,” says King, “but not just for the sake of having her on.”)

If anyone was worried that the new program will be deadly serious, King’s presence at the presser might have put an end to that impression. But will the show have a multiple personality, between King’s bubbly persona, Rose’s loquacious smart talk, and Hill’s professional-anchor aura?

“We want to be storytellers here,” said Rose, who will keep his PBS talk show. “I will now be able to paint on two canvases, in the morning and the evening.” Hill says she wants to learn from her new colleagues, “but also to be surprised by them” as they try to “reshape morning television.”

CBS News chairman Jeff Fager and other executives tried to define the program primarily by what it won’t be. There won’t be a weatherman. There won’t be cooking segments. There won’t be outdoor concerts.

“It’s really going to be about what CBS News is,” Fager said, a program “that doesn’t try to copy what’s out there … The Today show has done an amazing job. They have a lot to be proud of.”

So is the soon-to-be-renamed Early Show the anti-Today?

“It will be a newscast,” said Chris Licht, the former Morning Joe producer who is running the new broadcast. There will be “conversations with people who are covering stories,” said Rose, a longtime friend of Fager.

Rival network executives are privately scoffing at the notion of a smarter-than-thou morning show, saying CBS will have no one to blame but the audience if it doesn’t get ratings. But Licht was quick to challenge any notion of snootiness, saying, “We’re not going to be above any story.”

Some of the journalists in attendance had a seen-it-before air, which is hardly surprising given CBS’s 30 years of failure in the morning. Fager acknowledged that he hates the phrase “distant third,” but was careful not to make any predictions, with both Today and GMA now doubling the CBS audience. That is a giant hill to climb.

Can the Rose-King-Hill vehicle move the ratings needle? “We hope it moves it up,” Fager said. “It matters to this news organization.”

“I think of it as a challenge to create something,” said Rose, “that we believe in, that we would want to watch.”

“We aren’t your typical stuffy program,” King said. She described her father making her watch Walter Cronkite’s newscast when she was growing up—she was “bored to tears”—but that instilled in her a reverence for all things CBS.

King said she'd be giving up her program at the Oprah Winfrey Network and her role at O Magazine because "this really deserves 150 percent focus."

Licht said he “fell in love with Gayle” when booking her for MSNBC’s Morning Joe, that “she just popped off the screen” and displays “an unmistakable love of life.” And she was, to be sure, quite effusive.

But will the whole be greater than the sum of its parts? Rose is 69 and was waxing enthusiastic about interviewing Ehud Barak and Umberto Eco. Hill is a much younger former CNN anchor with a pleasant on-air manner. King is a forceful personality, but her public image is that of Oprah’s gal pal—and she will likely be dealing with more cultural subjects.

Is this a combination that can give Matt Lauer and Ann Curry, or George Stephanopoulos and Robin Roberts, a run for their money? Will the show be part PBS, part CNN, and part The View?

CBS potentially could attract a Joe-and-Mika-type audience, but a healthy cable audience simply doesn’t translate into the numbers needed on broadcast television.

No network has tried this kind of experiment in the morning. CBS potentially could attract a Joe-and-Mika-type audience—the network came close to signing the MSNBC hosts—but a healthy cable audience simply doesn’t translate into the numbers needed on broadcast television.

And however the concept plays out, success in attracting a big audience often boils down to chemistry. “Ultimately they have to want to get up in the morning with these guys,” Licht said.

Rose invoked the recently departed Steve Jobs in explaining what they’re trying to invent, ticking off the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. “He didn’t create these products based on market research,” Rose said.

There you have it: CBS is going to give the people what they haven’t yet figured out they want. The program debuts Jan. 9.