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Gumbel to wake early

CBS hopes for new dawn with ayemcast reteaming

NEW YORK — Perennial ayem also-ran CBS Tuesday formally began the latest chapter in its never-ending quest to become a morning show player, confirming that former “Today” vets Bryant Gumbel and Steve Friedman will reteam in November for the launch of a new breakfastcast to be housed in a $25 million street-level studio complex.

The move, expected since last January, is designed to boost the Eye’s share of the still-widening $400 million ayem ad market now dominated by NBC’s top-rated “Today,” which makes an estimated profit of $100 million per year from revenues of around $190 million.

The re-entry of Gumbel into the daypart also promises the start of an ayem star war, with the $6 million-a-year Gumbel facing off against NBC’s Katie Couric and ABC’s Diane Sawyer, who pull in between $5 million and $7 million each per year.

CBS Television prexy Leslie Moonves — flanked by a small army of Gotham power players, including mayor Rudolph Giuliani, developer-mogul Donald Trump and CBS News prexy Andrew Heyward — announced the Eye’s ayem plans at an afternoon press conference held inside the lobby of the GM Building at Trump International Plaza, where construction has already begun on the 5,000-square-foot studio and digital control room.

Moonves called Gumbel and former “Today” exec producer Friedman a “dynamic duo” capable of finally making CBS “fully competitive in the morning.”

No promises

Both Gumbel and Friedman, however, downplayed the notion that their pairing would lead to an immediate revival of the Eye’s ayem fortunes.

“First we’ll be the best, and then we’ll be first,” said Friedman, subtly acknowledging the difficulty of changing viewing habits.

Gumbel, who ankled “Today” in 1997 after a record 15-year run as anchor, admitted that he had been reluctant to return to morning television, primarily because of “personal lifestyle” issues — namely, waking up at 4 a.m. every weekday. He dismissed the idea that his return to the daypart after an unsuccessful attempt at hosting a primetime newsmag (the short-lived “Public Eye”) was in any way a career disappointment.

“I’d never call hosting two hours of live television” a letdown, he said, adding that he joined CBS to contribute to the network in whichever position made the most sense.

No major adjustments to Gumbel’s current CBS deal were needed to pave the way for his return to the ayem, though Gumbel has been given permission to continue hosting HBO’s “Real Sports” beyond his current six seg commitment.

Friedman, now station manager and veep of Eye flagship WCBS, will serve as senior exec producer of the new morning show, which is expected to lose its current title, “This Morning,” as well as its Carly Simon-penned theme. Al Berman will remain as exec producer, working with Friedman.

Co-anchor Jane Robelot will leave the program by November, while co-anchor Mark McEwen may stay on as a weather or entertainment reporter. A female co-host for the new show is expected to be named before the end of the summer.

“Today” weatherman Al Roker, who’s friends with both Gumbel and Friedman, has not yet inked a new deal to replace his current NBC contract, which expires in January. That’s led to speculation he might bolt to CBS, though insiders say it’s a long shot.

New show will be carried by most CBS-owned stations as a full two-hour broadcast, as opposed to the current local/national hybrid that allows stations to offer mostly local news during the 7-8 a.m. hour.

Lease with Trump

CBS has inked a long-term lease with Trump guaranteeing access to the building for more than 10 years. General Motors, which had 11 years remaining on its lease, will be given promotional and ad considerations for its cooperation.

The new studio complex will feature interactive kiosks for outside auds to link up to CBS stations and Internet holdings. Trump is also building a plaza courtyard that will be available as a backdrop for the new studio.

Execs at NBC and ABC reacted to the CBS announcement by arguing that Gumbel’s return wouldn’t mean much to their individual broadcasts.

“I really don’t think this has anything to do with the ‘Today’ show,” said “Today” topper Jeff Zucker, adding that “this is all about a race for second place” between ABC and CBS.

Zucker, who served as Gumbel’s producer for several years, said the return of the former “Today” frontman “shows what a big deal the morning daypart has become. … This is the hottest daypart in all of television right now.”

ABC News prexy David Westin praised both Gumbel and Friedman as “solid” competitors, but said that “the job we have to do hasn’t changed” because of their return.