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Better Early Than Never
CBS producer Steve Friedman on revamping the net's mornings
Early Show anchors by John Filo/CBS
CBS' The Early Show
 
There probably isn't anyone on Earth who has produced more hours of morning television than Steve Friedman. In two stints and 10 years of producing NBC's Today, he worked with Tom Brokaw, Jane Pauley, Bryant Gumbel, Katie Couric and Matt Lauer. He devised the show's street-level studio in Rockefeller Plaza, which has become a major Manhattan attraction. He led CBS' effort to become a serious player in morning TV when he launched The Early Show with Gumbel and Jane Clayson in 1999. The show has never challenged Today or ABC's Good Morning America in the ratings, but it has become a significant profit center for CBS News. Friedman followed pal Gumbel out of CBS in 2002, but the network's current news president Sean McManus has brought him back — as vice president in charge of morning broadcasts — in the hopes that Friedman can take The Early Show to the next level. The Biz talked with him about how he sees the morning landscape — and about his little-known attempt to get the late Dana Reeve to cohost The Early Show.

TVGuide.com: Why did The Early Show's ratings stop growing after a couple of years and then head into reverse?
Friedman:
Even though morning TV keeps growing, there is a finite audience that makes up the backbone. When somebody gains, it comes at the expense of somebody else. A year ago everybody wrote how Good Morning America was going to overtake the Today show. GMA had tremendous growth in 2005, and it had to come out of [another show's ratings] and part of the growth came out of CBS. Good Morning America got hot and took audience away from both CBS and NBC.... I think you can trace some of the decline of The Early Show to the time of the Memogate stuff [the flawed 60 Minutes II story about President Bush's National Guard service]. As a division, as a company, CBS was involved with that, and the morning wasn't on the radar screen as much as it should have been.

TVGuide.com: If Katie Couric leaves Today and comes over to CBS, what kind of dynamic will that create for the morning shows?
Friedman:
You know what? Every day is a crisis in morning TV. Every day is an opportunity. You have to look at it that way.

TVGuide.com: But the only times you see a real shift in the morning-ratings rankings is after an anchor change. Is CBS looking at getting Couric as a dual opportunity here?
Friedman:
I don't think they're looking at it that way. We're not thinking about being in first place this week. You want to start growing, and you want to leverage that growth. You want to do something to keep it going up. That's what you try to do. You can't sit around and say X is leaving, Y is doing this, so now is our opportunity. You've got to do it anyway. I will tell you that other than in 1999, when we started The Early Show, or in the late '70s, when they put Charles Kuralt and Diane Sawyer on in the morning at CBS, I haven't felt a companywide commitment at the network to say, "Let's go after them, let's go do it." But I do feel that today, or I wouldn't be here.

TVGuide.com: You've been out of morning TV for four years. Do you think it's changed over that time?
Friedman:
Yes. I think the segments are quicker. There are more people on the set, not only at our place, but at the other two. I think the signature element in the '80s was taking trips, in the '90s it was the studios. I don't think there has been a signature moment for morning television in this decade. I think it's our job to figure out what that is and to try to make it ours. I think morning TV has always been about the people who are on the air, and I don't see any change in that.

TVGuide.com: How long do you look at The Early Show before you make a move to change things?
Friedman:
I think it depends what the move is. There will be moves quickly from what I call a production point of view. What is on, where the commercials run, that kind of thing. That will be sooner. Overall, it's going to take some time before I figure out exactly what it is we have to do. You really can't make changes before you understand the ramifications of what you're doing.

TVGuide.com: You've said in the past that CBS' morning show is at a disadvantage because it's locked into a commercial break at 7:15. Explain that to me.
Friedman:
The other programs have floating breaks — they can go to them at any time. It's at their discretion. They can go to 7:19, or if they really want to, go to 7:22. You're the master of your domain at Today or GMA.

TVGuide.com: Why can't you do that at The Early Show?
Friedman:
About 25 percent of the CBS affiliates in the country don't [broadcast] every moment of The Early Show's first hour. They come in and out, so on these stations, rather than on a national show with local inserts, they do a local show with national inserts. And to make clean entry points for those stations, you have to hit the times exactly. If you've got something really good going on The Early Show, you can't really expand it. Or when you've got something really bad, you can't cut it short. That's a major disadvantage that this program has right now. But to defend the stations, they were told by the network in 1998 that if they wanted to do a [local] program like that, it would be counter to what NBC and ABC were doing. They were told to hire people to make their morning strong, and this was the way we would do something different. A year later The Early Show comes along, and we tell them "never mind." A lot of stations that spent a lot of money and were doing well said, "You can't force us." CBS said, "You're right." But it becomes a chicken-and-egg thing. You can force the stations to change if you've got a hot show, but you can't get a hot show unless you get more flexibility. That's something we've got to work on. We've got to figure out what our stance is on that.

TVGuide.com: I heard that in your first tenure at CBS you tried to get Dana Reeve to do The Early Show.
Friedman:
The first time I tried to get her [it was for] a syndicated talk show for NBC [where she would be] paired with Al Roker. I thought Dana Reeve was a tremendous talent on her own. She had the extra thing of so much empathy for what she was doing, standing by Christopher Reeve — she kept him alive, in my opinion — and turning him into a force of great good. So you not only had someone of a lot of ability who was very smart and could talk, but you also had somebody whom the public thought was a saint. The reason she didn't go for it was that it would have taken time out of her caring for Chris. As time went by, she did a show for Lifetime and we kept in touch. When we were looking for an Early Show host, I thought Dana would be terrific with Bryant Gumbel. Bryant's image — which I refuse to believe is true — is of being this mean, tough, hard-charging guy, and I'd have this America's sweetheart and saint, Dana Reeve, sitting next to him. In the final analysis, she said the same thing: She couldn't make the commitment. But we worked very hard trying to get her.





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