CBS taps Ross for ‘Early Show’

Former 'Morning' producer takes the reigns

A change at the top of CBS’ “The Early Show” could have big implications for the on-air cast, a group that includes CBS topper Leslie Moonves’ wife, Julie Chen.

On Monday CBS News named former “Good Morning America” exec producer Shelley Ross as executive producer of “The Early Show,” the second management change at the show in less than two years.

CBS News and Sports prexy Sean McManus said Ross would have broad authority to make changes, including hiring and firing of on-air talent, as well as changing their roles within the broadcast.

“I will be involved in approving the major decisions she will make,” McManus said. “I don’t think she anticipates major changes right away.”

“Early Show,” long mired in third place in the ratings, has a bigger anchor cast than its competitors, a situation former CBS News VP of morning programs Steve Friedman tried to address by removing Rene Syler from the ayemcast in December.

Friedman also added CBS “Evening News” weekend anchor Russ Mitchell as a newsreader to strengthen the first half-hour.

In addition to Mitchell, the show boasts three other co-anchors, Harry Smith, Hannah Storm and Julie Chen, as well as weatherman Dave Price.

During her five-year tenure at “GMA,” Ross was able to rely on big news stars. ABC was in talks to bring Charlie Gibson back to the struggling “GMA” when she arrived in 1999, and Ross convinced Diane Sawyer to join him in the morning.

In just a few years, Ross and her anchor duo shrunk the gap with first-place “Today” from more than 2 million viewers when she took over to just more than 1 million by 2003.

Her successor, Ben Sherwood, pushed “GMA” to within 40,000 viewers of “Today” in the spring of 2005, which led to the ouster of “Today” exec producer Tom Touchet.

Rather than make quick changes, Ross said she plans to see what can be achieved with the show by putting the existing anchors in different roles and “punching up” the content and pacing.

“I like the authenticity of the anchors that we have,” Ross said of the current “Early Show” cast. “We’ll see if they can shine brighter with fresh ideas.”

Ross said Chen, 37, the youngest member of the anchor cast, also may have the most potential upside.

“When you think of all her broadcast experience, I’m really looking forward to what Julie and I can do together,” she said.

The pacing of the first half-hour has been dictated by a cooperative arrangement with CBS stations that allows local affiliates to break in at scheduled times, limiting the amount of time the show can allot to segments.

That deal is coming to an end in January, allowing producers to be flexible about the length of segments and where the commercial breaks air, potentially making the broadcast more competitive from a news standpoint with “GMA” and “Today.”

“The fact that we are getting rid of the co-op format will be helpful,” McManus said. “It will help us compete for the first time in a long time on equal footing.”

Ross officially starts next Monday.

In the meantime, CBS News is in talks to retain both Friedman and senior exec producer Michael Bass at the network in different roles.

Insiders said Bass is in talks to remain on the “Early Show” with Ross; he may also move to “Evening News With Katie Couric.”

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