For decades, the broadcast networks' morning news shows have followed the same time-tested format. Hard news at the top, with dollops of celebrity news, cooking segments, and concerts to fill up the majority of airtime. It’s been rare that any network has strayed from the formula, even among the morning shows playing catch-up in the ratings.
But in the last month, CBS News has been testing something fairly revolutionary with its third-place morning newscast The Early Show—at least by the normal standards.
Out are the popular fashion, celebrity, and cooking segments that populate the 8 a.m. hour of its broadcast competitors. In its place is a news-driven show focused on politics and the storytelling techniques that have defined shows like 60 Minutes.
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Lately, the broadcast has shunned reporting on the courtroom drama at the Casey Anthony trial, instead showcasing hour-long wonky town halls with President Obama and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
“I don't feel that I have to do the same stories at the same time as the other morning shows. That is what we are trying not to be. We are trying not to compete story to story, segment to segment, minute to minute in the show. There is no gain there,” said Batt Humphreys, Early Show interim executive producer. “We tried to do that for 30-something years and it hasn't worked very well…. I've come to the conclusion that maybe that model is just not working."
Coverage of the 2012 presidential race has taken increased prominence. This past Monday, while NBC’s Today show interviewed GOP presidential contender Tim Pawlenty during the 7 a.m. hour, Early sat down with Pawlenty for a substantive interview in the second hour.
It’s now become more common for the Early Show to book members of Congress to discuss meaty policy issues in the 8 a.m. hour while celebrities are pitching books and movies on NBC and ABC.
“I just don't feel that you necessarily have to be constrained or bound by a female demographic that starts swinging at eight o'clock," Humphreys said. "Nor by that demographic, do you have to program for what you perceive that they want, because in all honesty, I know a lot of women, I’ve talked to women … and its not all about fashion, food, and feeding your babies. I think women are capable of handling content after 8 o'clock in the morning.”
Much of the changes in content have come as a result of a recent shakeup in CBS's news division. Humphreys, a former Early Show senior producer, returned to take over after former Executive Producer David Friedman’s departure. In June, the news division nabbed MSNBC’s popular Morning Joe Executive Producer Chris Licht as vice president of programming for CBS News. Many in the industry have speculated that Licht, who experienced great success with a unique politics-centered show on cable, is looking to replicate that formula with The Early Show.
Licht isn’t the only NBC’er to head to the Tiffany Network. Norah O’Donnell, a veteran NBC Washington correspondent who was a regular guest on Morning Joe, joined CBS as the network's chief White House correspondent. O’Donnell has the chops to be a ubiquitous political presence on the network, much like Chuck Todd at NBC and Jake Tapper at ABC. She frequently appeared on the Chris Matthews Show and MSNBC programming providing political analysis.
And 60 Minutes Executive Producer Jeff Fager took the reins as CBS News chairman, and brought the show's Scott Pelley on to replace Katie Couric on the CBS Evening News—adding a hard-news sensibility to the news division.
Along with broadening their political coverage, Fager and CBS News President David Rhodes have made a conscious effort to integrate the division’s platforms. There will be more crossover on the network's news shows; for example, The Early Show will air complementary segments to 60 Minutes or Evening News pieces.
"The fact that the different broadcast components of CBS News now are connecting is unprecedented in my 20 years at CBS News. There is a synergy here that has not existed before,” Humphreys said. “That's because Fager has brought it back to its core values, brought it back to the tradition of storytelling. And has brought a team together that is actually working together in one direction."
The ratings, however, haven’t changed much. The Early Show is still stuck as a distant third place finisher to Today and ABC’s Good Morning America. The trendlines are a little more encouraging: TVNewser reports that “it’s the only broadcast to show week-to-week growth last month, up slightly in total viewers."
Indeed, the decision to abandon tabloid-style coverage is not without risk. For one, avoiding the Casey Anthony trial, which has dominated nearly all the news networks, is something that could drive away viewers. CNN's headline network, HLN, which is running wall-to-wall coverage of the trial, has seen its ratings soar. While Today and Good Morning America have aired a segment everyday at almost the same time relating to the trial, Early made a conscious decision to not do the same. Humphreys calls the story a “traditional, typical morning show tabloid-type trial” that they’re trying to avoid.
But don’t completely count out the appearance of celebrities, chefs, or musical guests. You just won’t see them with the same frequency as the other programs. Humphreys is open to the idea of more pop-culture segments but producers just need to “find a different way to do it that hasn't been done before on morning television."
“In all honesty, [The Early Show] is breaking the chains of the demographic dictating how morning shows are programmed,” said Humphreys. “This show is gaining the internal respect of CBS News that I think is really going to help make it successful.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: CBS News recently partnered with National Journal for coverage of the 2012 campaign.