- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2000

NEW YORK

Its ratings are "tanking." Concerning audience size, it's "a two-hour sinkhole." Its "$30 million face lift just adds wrinkles."

In short, "For 'The Early Show,' it's getting late."

So go media assessments of CBS' umpteenth entry in the breakfast derby, a race long dominated by NBC's "Today" (with more than 6 million viewers tuned to Katie Couric and Matt Lauer) and, in second place, ABC's "Good Morning America" (about 4.6 million viewers for Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson).

Since its launch Nov. 1, and even before, "The Early Show" has been written off as a lost cause. Groaning that its viewership (about 2.2 million) is lower than the audience for the nearly invisible show it replaced, one media Kevorkian has already urged that "The Early Show" be given a swift mercy killing.

But just how closely are these critics following "The Early Show" beyond its Nielsen score? A recent issue of Time magazine is instructive. It ran a cartoon in which co-anchors Bryant Gumbel and Jane Clayson fret about their puny numbers but the drawing mislabels Clayson as "Clayton."

This is an understandable error at least, if no one at Time magazine ever catches the show. In any case, it seems professional media-watchers are a conspicuous segment of all the people who aren't watching "The Early Show."

"I haven't seen one person write that the show is terrible," says Steve Friedman, its executive producer. "All I hear about is the ratings."

Granted, "It's not terrible," hardly serves as a rallying cry. Nor, for that matter, does "It's just as good," which is Mr. Friedman's own appraisal of "The Early Show" vs. its rivals.

Yet things are right on track, he insists. "The first six months was to establish ourselves as a credible show, and we've done it. When a big story hit whether it was a plane crash, politics, Elian, the stock market we've been there."

Mr. Friedman has been there before. A TV-news veteran, he served two hitches running "Today" and transformed morning television with the sidewalk studio he introduced in 1994. His "window on the world" helped "Today" push past then-leader "Good Morning America." Now, of course, everybody does windows.

Adapted for CBS, Mr. Friedman's master plan called for "The Early Show" to originate from a built-to-order glassed studio on Fifth Avenue across from Central Park. It returned Mr. Gumbel, Mr. Friedman's leading man at NBC, to the morning arena, where he had excelled for 15 seasons.

To share the anchor desk, Mr. Friedman chose Miss Clayson, a relative newcomer who is chipper, fresh-faced and starting to show her chops. (One day recently, she began needling Mr. Gumbel about his aversion to country music, reducing him to a grinning "What do you want from me?" deferral.)

It's essential that Mr. Gumbel's co-host help humanize him in the eyes of those viewers who complain that he is aloof, haughty and tactless and who see fresh evidence of his not-so-niceness in publicity surrounding his ugly divorce battle.

But, however easy to take, Miss Clayson thus far hasn't wowed the audience.

Nor has anything else about the show made a splash.

"We never said we were going to revolutionize morning television," Mr. Friedman responds. "We like morning television the way it is, and viewers like it, too."

Mr. Friedman's big problem: What viewers like most about morning TV is the co-anchor team they chose months, or even years, before his show arrived. Even if they do look in on "The Early Show," they can't help thinking, "Gee, I wonder what Matt and Katie (or Diane and Charlie) are doing right now?" The only way to find out is to bail on Bryant and Jane.

"We may have underestimated how hard it would be to set up a fast-food hamburger place across the street from McDonald's and Burger King," Mr. Friedman concedes. "People like McDonald's and Burger King."

Of course, people also like Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC; did we really need another hamburger stand? But the logic of Mr. Friedman's same-but-better strategy is beside the point. Like it or not, "The Early Show" is a solid, competitive program, flipping burgers with the best of them.

"Now we want to get ourselves in position," Mr. Friedman says. He wants to be ready for the day there's a change among the other guys. (After all, how much longer do Miss Sawyer and Mr. Gibson want to rise before dawn?) "That kind of thing could give us a good opportunity."

Does CBS have the needed patience? Will its merger with Viacom dampen the commitment? And what about network affiliates, whose enthusiasm Mr. Friedman must reignite at their annual meeting later this spring?

"I think that we probably have another couple of years to develop the show," Mr. Friedman declares. "I hope we do. I mean, our plaza isn't even done outside."

Far from it. Right out the window is a hole in the ground. "This show," Mr. Friedman says, gesturing with a flourish at the construction, "is being built as we go, brick by brick."

While the work goes on, can he dodge the critics' stones?

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