NEW YORK — CBS execs were gloating Thursday about the signing of former NBC “Today” anchor Bryant Gumbel, who brings a needed shot of adrenaline to the network’s third-place news division.
The Eye web scored a major win with the signing of a five-year deal, justifying a $5-million-a-year paycheck that doubles Gumbel’s “Today” salary, with stock options to boot. As reported, Gumbel gets a one-hour primetime newsmagazine show set to debut this fall, and a deal with Eyemark Entertainment to form a new production company (Daily Variety, March 13).
The Eyemark partnership will produce three entertainment specials a year for CBS and a separate strip for firstrun syndication, probably for fall 1998. Gumbel will exec produce and own a piece of both programs, and also share in revenues from potential overseas distribution.
Gumbel said he reached a final decision to go with CBS only in the past two days, adding, “It was a close call. … All things being equal, I was going to stay where I was, always, because change is difficult.” He called his sometime golf partner and friend GE chairman Jack Welch “a very compelling man” who fought hard to keep him.
But CBS’ close ties with Eyemark — and the ability to do business with both at once — clinched the deal, several sources said.
“It’s a unique situation and one we have not ever really participated in before,” said Peter Lund, president and CEO of CBS Television & Cable Group.
Others said the deal gives Gumbel a network security blanket while still offering him the prospect of “Oprah”-style riches.
“This way, CBS says, ‘We’ll guarantee you a base (salary), but we’ve got this syndication thing that, if successful, you’ll make $100 million,’ ” one prominent TV agent said.
“The syndication piece was a big part of it,” Gumbel acknowledged, “less so for financial reasons than for reasons of independence. The set-up over here was conducive to the kinds of things I want to do.”
But he demurred on specifics about what form the syndie show would take, and even about whether he’d appear in it, although industry execs expect him to be a part of an interview-style format that’s likely to air in prime access or early fringe time periods.
“We’ve thought about it in blue-sky terms only,” Gumbel said. “We’re going to take a look not only at what we want to do, but at what the landscape will allow.”
For CBS News, the primetime show obviously is the key draw, and the Gumbel entry is not expected to supplant “48 Hours,” CBS’ second newsmag behind “60 Minutes.”
A show pony
“One area we’ve been wanting to build is primetime news vehicles,” said Michael Jordan, chairman of CBS parent Westinghouse Electric Corp. “We know that’s a competitive landscape, but we feel we’ve got a leg up” with Gumbel’s marquee value.
Jordan confirmed that Gumbel will get options for company stock — a first for on-air talent there — saying it sends a strong signal of support for the Eye web’s attempts to rebuild. “I’m glad he wanted to get tied to the total fortunes of the company in that way,” Jordan said, declining to specify exact terms of the package.
Specifics also were scarce on the newsmagazine — to premiere this fall with Gumbel’s name in the title — but the future host said the new program would feature a team of correspondents as well as interview segments, and portions will air live.
Apart from the primetime mag, specials and syndicated show, Gumbel all but ruled out other roles that have been the subject of speculation. Filling Dan Rather’s anchor chair at the “CBS Evenings News” is “not something I aspire to,” and was never discussed, he said. He’s unlikely to find time to participate in breaking network news coverage.
And there are no plans to revisit sports programming, the realm where Gumbel launched his career as a KNBC sportscaster in 1972 and continued it at NBC Sports before his 15-year “Today” tenure. “I’m not real big on going back over ground I’ve covered before,” he said.