Brewing a comeback?

With rivals in flux, CBS perks up ayemcast

In the subterranean control room of CBS’ “The Early Show,” Steve Friedman expends nervous energy shifting back and forth on his heels while chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan gets mic’ed up for a report on Baghdad.

That Logan, a rising star at CBS News, would do a live report from the Iraq capital for the net’s morning show would seem like a no-brainer, but it’s the kind of cooperation within the news division that “The Early Show” has not always been able to take for granted.

“At NBC and ABC, the relationship between the morning shows and the evening news are like this; at CBS, that has not always been the case,” says Friedman, who returned to “The Early Show” in May to mount its latest challenge to make it a credible competitor with NBC and ABC.

Now that the “Evening News” has been stabilized, CBS is turning attention to its long-suffering morning entry, a tough project for a division built on its evening newscast and “60 Minutes.”

But in a season of shifts in the morning show landscape that saw Katie Couric leaving “Today” and Charlie Gibson and exec producer Ben Sherwood leaving “GMA,” the show finds itself with a rare opportunity to capture viewers alienated by changes elsewhere.

CBS News has a new leader in Sean McManus who has made it clear that third place behind ABC and NBC is no longer acceptable and that “The Early Show” must be programmed into the news division’s DNA. As he did for CBS’ once-troubled sports division, McManus is implementing a unified look-and-feel for the Eye’s newscasts.

The changes are more than skin-deep.

Cooperation in the once-cloistered news division is now the expectation, and kicking in for the mornings means pleasing the boss. McManus brought back Friedman, a larger-than-life character, who had two stints at “Today” and who built both NBC’s and CBS’ morning megastudios, to stand next to exec producer Michael Bass and help push the show up the ratings hill.

“I wouldn’t have come back here if Sean had not convinced me that he and Leslie (Moonves) intend to win in the mornings,” says Friedman, who left “The Early Show” in 2001 at the end of the Bryant Gumbel-Jane Clayson era.

The first goal, he says, is to replicate the recent success of the “Evening News With Bob Schieffer,” which reversed a ratings slide with relatively minor tweaks and a better newscast.

The first opportunity to make headway came soon after Friedman arrived. After May sweeps, the morning shows typically downshift. Couric’s last day at “Today” was May 31 and “GMA’s” Diane Sawyer typically takes much of June off.

CBS promotions chief George Schweitzer told Friedman that if he and Bass could come up with some stunts, the net would pour its promotional efforts behind it.

Friedman calls it a “June sweeps” strategy.

So Friedman is reprising what he did as exec producer of “Today” in the ’80s, only this time it’s Dave Price, not Willard Scott, on the road for the “Great Vacation Giveaway.” Friedman targeted 15 markets where the net has a strong affiliate and there’s the potential to get some ratings lift — towns like Minneapolis and Salt Lake City.

They also launched a take on “American Idol” called “Living Room … Live!” where viewers can upload and then vote on performance videos. The winner gets to perform live on the outdoor plaza in front of the GM building in Gotham.

CBS News built its legacy on the “Evening News” and “60 Minutes,” but increasingly, it’s the morning shows that command the auds and ad dollars.

The three network morning shows have added a million viewers, or 7%, since 2001, while auds for evening news have been dropping by about a million a year, or 13% since 2001.

The challenge for CBS, which has been trailing ABC’s “GMA” by more than 2 million viewers, is to win a greater share of the growing pie.

So far in June, “Today” has yet to feel much of a Couric hangover. Season-to-date, “Today” holds a commanding lead of 6 million, up 1% in a year the network had the Winter Olympics and Couric’s sendoff. “GMA” pulled 5.1 million, down 5% from a year when it pulled within 40,000 of “Today.”

“The Early Show” is off 2%, a distant third with an average of 2.9 million.

In the coming months, CBS will figure out if its stability in the morning is a strength. Auds have had plenty of time to sample the show’s five-member cast and promoting an unchanged product is tougher than, say, Meredith Vieira’s debut on “Today.”

But Friedman says the network doesn’t yet know how far the cast of Harry Smith, Hannah Storm, Rene Syler, Julie Chen and Dave Price can go.

“Let’s go back to Tom, Peter and Dan,” he says, referring to the previous generation of news anchors. “Each of them was first, each was second, and each was third, and they’re basically the same guy. I believe if you do the best job, you ultimately win.”

Friedman isn’t changing the cast — yet — but he is tinkering with it. He believes the five-member ensemble is ungainly, so he has reduced the number of people onscreen to more closely resemble the four-member format (two co-anchors, newsreader and weatherman) that he helped to institutionalize at “Today.”

He’s also trying to bring more clearly defined roles to the group.

With Julie Chen splitting time in Los Angeles as host of “Big Brother,” and periodic summer vacations, alternating anchors is working well for the moment, but Friedman made it clear that, ideally, the show would have fewer anchors spending more time onscreen to establish a rapport with viewers.

“You go with what you have; this is what we have,” Friedman says.

Further complicating the situation, one of those anchors is CEO Moonves’ wife. “I found Julie when she was at Channel 2, so I have no problem with that,” he says.

The biggest test for “The Early Show” comes this fall when Couric takes her place on the “CBS Evening News.” It’s unclear how often she’ll visit the morning show, but Friedman anticipates she’ll show up frequently to promote stories on the “Evening News” or upcoming pieces on “60 Minutes.”

“Katie’s first job is the ‘Evening News’ and ’60 Minutes,’ ” he says. “I think she will come on our show to help herself — which will help us.”

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