‘CBS This Morning’ marks 5 years of ‘re-imagining the news’
NEW YORK — In 1982, CBS uprooted “Captain Kangaroo” from its weekday berth after 27 years. The beloved children’s show got the heave-ho to make way for a breakfast-hour news show to go up against ABC’s “Good Morning America” and NBC’s “Today.”
For the next 30 years, that didn’t go so well. One misfire after another kept CBS a ratings also-ran. It was as if kindly Captain Kangaroo was getting payback for CBS doing him wrong.
Then, five years ago Monday, that quixotic quest bore fruit with the debut of “CBS This Morning.” After three dismal decades, CBS had brought something fresh and useful to the morning TV realm. For that remarkable feat, it seemed the Captain decided to lift his curse.
True, “CBS This Morning” (averaging 3.69 million viewers for fourth-quarter 2016) remains in third place, behind nip-and-tuck front-runners “GMA” (which averaged 4.66 million viewers for the quarter, edging out “Today” by 84,000) and “Today” (which, averaging 4.79 million viewers in December, eked out a 98,000-viewer monthly win).
But CBS’ audience is steadily increasing, with year-over-year growth for 50 consecutive months, while the gap erodes between “This Morning” and its rivals.
Airing weekdays from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. EST, “CBS This Morning” is a relative newbie to “GMA” (which premiered in 1975) and “Today” (born in 1952). And for viewers who haven’t yet gotten on board, it may most simply be described as blessed relief from those competitors. It is thoughtful and substantial. The pace is brisk, but not frenetic.
The two old-timers seem in continual churn, locked in an arms race of escalating gimmickry and regularly shuffling their on-air personnel. Meanwhile, “CBS This Morning” has stuck to quietly refining the broadcast while its co-hosts (Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell) found their rhythm as a cozy team.
Putting news first was the big idea for confronting daybreak’s Dynamic Duo, where news often took a backseat to shiny objects and piffle. That was “news” in the morning, until “CBS This Morning.”
“Our mission from the beginning was to re-imagine the news,” Rose says.
“We realized we could do that and be intelligent and be fun,” says King — “and NOT go to silly school.”
The variety-show stylings that grip the other shows are noticeably absent at “CBS This Morning.” Its loft-like Studio 57, with exposed brick and hardwood floor, is grounded by the table where the co-hosts preside and meet their guests for what is literally round-table talk, with all the co-anchors often taking part.
“We bring out things in each other,” says Rose, gathered with his colleagues in the studio’s adjoining Green Room after a recent broadcast. “It’s all a product of the spontaneity of the moment, and being comfortable with the possibilities.”
“We want to unleash the values of CBS News: original reporting and great storytelling,” says O’Donnell. “That’s what drove the show from the very beginning.”
A key figure in this back-to-basics strategy is executive producer Ryan Kadro. Seated on the couch in his office, with his laptop resting on the coffee table that serves as his desk, he looks relaxed despite having had to remake on the fly that morning’s lineup after one of the scheduled guests got held up in traffic.
Kadro was promoted to the top spot last spring, when charter EP Chris Licht took over “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
But during 2011, Kadro (then a producer of the morning show “This Morning” would replace) and Licht (newly arrived from running MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”) were hashing out what the new venture would be.
“At first, it’s easier to figure out what you AREN’T than what you ARE,” Kadro recalls. “Because when you say ‘morning show,’ you immediately get a vision of four anchors standing outside on a plaza with a bunch of people behind them. You think of cooking segments and fashion shows.”
“CBS This Morning,” emphatically averting silly school, dawned on Jan. 9, 2012, with Rose, nursing a sore throat, alongside King and Erica Hill (who soon would relinquish her spot to O’Donnell). From its first 90 seconds (its globe-spanning “Eye Opener” video digest), the program made clear it was its own distinctive creature.
“But it wasn’t easy the first year. It takes a while for a show to find its voice,” says Kadro, adding, “We were lucky.” He cites CBS network boss Leslie Moonves, then-news division chairman (now “60 Minutes” EP) Jeffrey Fager and news president David Rhodes for their support: “They gave us time.”
Like the co-hosts, Kadro still sees “CBS This Morning” as a work-in-progress, with a rise to second place a big part of his plan.
“I don’t know when, but it’s going to happen,” Kadro declares. “I think that people who watch our show like our show, and they tell other people. That’s why we’re growing.”
Charlie Rose isn’t quite so explicit when forecasting the future. But even five years ago, on opening morning, he felt pretty confident.
“I am not a patron of lost causes,” he explains.