How ‘CBS This Morning’ Finally Became a Player in the Morning News Race

Analysis: After decades of misfires, CBS News finally cracked TV's dawn patrol. To do it, executives had to stop following the rules and start breaking them

Courtesy CBS News

On a recent morning when the world is curious about the Republican candidates gearing up for a run at President, the transition of late-night hosts at Comedy Central and terrorism in the Middle East, Chris Licht knows just what to offer: Rock songs.

Licht, a former disc jockey, will over the course of two hours hunkered in a darkened studio on New York’s West 57th Street, pair news reports on the aforementioned items and more with a range of popular tunes. A segment about online dating scams debuts to the strains of Edwin Starr’s “A Girl Like You.” “Two Princes” by the Spin Doctors alerts viewers to a peek at newly born Prince George of England. “Midnight Train To Georgia” by Gladys Knight and the Pips introduces a segment about President Jimmy Carter. And Styx’s “Mr. Roboto” lends oomph to a news story about robots in Japan.

Sounds like a fun job. And yet, Licht presides over a critical initiative for CBS Corp., and the tunes he plays every morning mask the sounds of battle. He is executive producer of “CBS This Morning,” a nearly four-year-old morning-news program that has perhaps given CBS its best chance of shaking off the also-ran status it has held in the morning-news wars more or less since scrapping “Captain Kangaroo” in 1982 in favor of a full A.M. effort. As of Friday, CBS will have broadcast 1,000 episodes of the program, and network executives expect it to do more.

Sure,  ABC’s “Good Morning America” and NBC’s “Today” both attract more viewers than CBS’ effort, but Licht’s team is doing something Robin Roberts and Matt Lauer are not. “CBS This Morning” hosts Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell have lured additional people to their fold, while the rival morning behemoths are shedding viewers.

During the 2014-2015 broadcast season, “CBS This Morning” saw its overall viewership rise 10%, according to Nielsen, while “Today’s” fell 3.9% and “GMA’s” dipped 5.6%.  Among the viewers most desired by advertisers in news programs, people between 25 and 54, the CBS show snared 2.8% more during the period, Nielsen said. Meanwhile “Today” lost 9% and “GMA” lost 10.6%.  The two other rise-and-shine programs each have at least a million more viewers, but CBS is less than a million people away from both in the 25-to-54 audience.

“CBS This Morning” is accomplishing this feat without doing many of the things its competitors do.  There are no fans peeking in to the studio through windows.  There is no animal mascot, no summer concert series. Norah O’Donnell will not slip outside at 8 a.m. to greet a long-lost sorority sister who happens to be in the crowd. Charlie Rose will not introduce the newest contestants in a dance program (though he might occasionally give a promotional nod to CBS’ “Thursday Night Football”). No friendly meteorologist greets those who tune in.  CBS executives say Rose, King and O’Donnell are signed on for several years, a fact the correspondents confirm, so “CBS This Morning” is not at present likely to face the challenge that confronted “Good Morning America” after it rose to first place in 2012, only to find two members of its on-air staff, Josh Elliott and Sam Champion, quickly courted elsewhere.

The CBS trio often sits around a transparent round table – a design that has been echoed in recent months on CNN’s “New Day” and even NBC’s “Today” – and talk amongst themselves and their guests, not always to the viewer at home.  Viewers who come to “CBS This Morning” may happen upon an in-depth discussion of Apple earnings or the death of author E.L. Doctorow. “GMA” and “Today” may brag of exclusives with the aunt who sued her nephew over a broken hand or the first interview with Monica Lewinsky in a decade. “CBS This Morning” tries to stay true to one of its slogans: “More Real News.”

“You are not going to see us in Halloween costumes. You are not going to see us doing cooking shows – not that there’s anything wrong with that. But for this sensibility, it doesn’t work,” said King, holding forth in a glass-walled “green room” where guests normally hang out before going on set. “We are not going to be chopping potatoes.”

The show is “jam-packed with news,” said O’Donnell. “We are not wasting anybody’s time.”

CBS’ morning workout is a testament to a new wrinkle in the never-ending TV-news wars. For decades, success could only be achieved by emulating the look and feel of the number-one program. One show looked just like another.  When “Good Morning America” notched number-one ratings success in 2012 by presenting a cadre of smiling anchors on screen every morning, NBC’s “Today” followed suit for a time. As TV audiences splinter thanks to new technology and delayed viewing behaviors, however, there seems to be more room for programming that doesn’t follow a set pattern. “In the old days of broadcast media with limited competition, you wouldn’t want to carve out too narrow of a niche because you couldn’t attract the largest audience,” said Michael Conway, an associate professor of journalism at Indiana University. “But with so many choices now, a program that stands out as being different can have a better chance of carving out a niche with an acceptable audience size for today’s media environment.”

The trend is evident on TV’s late-night schedule, when a widening number of broadcast and cable networks have introduced talk shows featuring not just a host and celebrity interviews, but also a twist. At NBC, Jimmy Fallon strives to entertain and make people laugh. At CBS, Stephen Colbert focused on nabbing interviews with politicians and chief executives.  Viacom’s Comedy Central has launched the only late-night programming with people of color at the helm, Trevor Noah and Larry Wilmore, and depends on their unique perspectives to stand out. Time Warner will launch what will at present be the genre’s only female host, Samantha Bee, in January. The programs all have similar appeal, but strive to stand out from one another, rather than blending together into an indistinguishable mass.

Staying true to the things that hook viewers in the first place means Licht does not always curse if the other programs have something tabloid-y that might spur chatter.“There are stories that other places will do in a big way – for example, a Justin Bieber story. We find if we even go anywhere near that stuff, we get tremendous backlash from our audience. The people who are watching us have said, ‘I don’t want that. I want serious news. I want real news,’” he said. “That may be a ratings win for other people. We don’t see similar ratings pops if we do it.”

That sentiment didn’t keep “CBS This Morning” from covering the titillating news about basketball player Lamar Odom and the drug binge he suffered in a Nevada brothel. “We had a pretty intense discussion about it, and at the end of the day, it was a story – a cultural story about an NBA great and not a Kardashian. We sort of went off of it when it started being about Caitlyn Jenner visiting and the divorce and all of that stuff,”Licht said.  While covering the story, “CBS This Morning” was early to report that the athlete was likely to come out of his coma. “I think you run into a problem when you start to be elitist and look down on the news and trying to decide what news is,” Licht added.”News is news. We got no backlash at all on doing that story, which suggests to me we handled it correctly.”

The new morning effort has brought advertisers to CBS that were not on board in the past, said Jo Ann Ross, the network’s president of sales. One of the sponosors doesn’t want “CBS This Morning” to drift into sillier stuff. Toyota has attached its name to the program’s signature element: a 90-second video montage of headlines and pop-culture effluvia called “The Eye Opener.” Toyota for years had sponsored the summer concert series on NBC’s “Today,” an agreement that recently ended and had helped the car marketer reach “a music audience,” said Dionne Colvin-Lovely, national director of traditional and new media for Toyota Motor Sales.  Supporting the CBS show helps Toyota reach a different kind of crowd,  she said, one that wants knowledge, including details about new kinds of cars and the technology being used in them.

The people who work on the CBS program “have established themselves as kind of the calm approach to hard news in this space,” she said. “It’s more of the mindset for those who really want to know what they need to know and that’s who we are trying to make sure we are aligned with.”

Early Start

Licht had been instrumental in the creation of “Morning Joe,” at MSNBC, a morning program that depended heavily on the interaction of a panel led by former U.S. Congressman Joe Scarborough and journalist Mika Brzezinkski.  On “Joe,” segments can be freewheeling and hinge largely on how curious Scarborough, Brzezinski and cohorts like Willie Geist and Mike Barnicle are about the topic of each segment.

Before the current incarnation of “CBS This Morning” (the title was used in the 1980s for a CBS program in the 1990s featuring everyone from Harry Smith to Julie Chen), there was “The Early Show,” which broadcast from the General Motors building in New York City, and, said Licht, “was totally disconnected from the rest of the news division.” CBS News executives had decided to scrap the idea and build a program that hewed more closely to the historical legacy of CBS News – more original reporting and more serious-minded content. “I was given the mission, and sort of started from Ground Zero,” Licht recalled. “I pretended there had never been another morning show, ever.”

There was a lot to forget. Over the years, CBS mounted any number of early-bird efforts – “The Early Show,” “Morning,” “The CBS Morning News” and “The Morning Program” among them – and sent everyone from Diane Sawyer to Charles Kuralt to Phyllis George into the fray. In those instances, however, the network sought to put on a morning program that was just like the others, and would keep at it for decades. In 1954, as NBC’s “Today” rode to success by featuring the antics of a chimpanzee named J. Fred Muggs, CBS launched a morning program anchored by none other than Walter Cronkite, who in one segment would discuss headlines with a lion puppet named Charlemagne.

“The other guys really invented the format and established the format, and it’s a very compelling format, and CBS didn’t have the courage of its convictions” to ignore some of its rivals’ populist tendencies and focus on the quality of the newsgathering, said Andrew Heyward, who was president of CBS News between 1996 and 2005.  Kevin Finch, an assistant professor of mass communications at Washington and Lee University, used to work as a news director at CBS affiliates like WISH in Indianapolis and WCIA in Champaign, Illinois, and recalled the network’s attempts to placate stations. “We were told it’s going to be great, the show is getting a new set” on multiple occasions, Finch said. “That’s nice, but it’s not enough to turn back decades of tradition.”

Licht came up with a way to signal the show would be different. The program’s “Eye Opener” gives viewers a sense of what’s brewing as they greet the day. The segment isn’t dry. It often contains highlights of late-night monologues as well as newsy vignettes.  The idea, said Licht, came to him in the shower: “I was thinking about ‘upfronts’ and how they do these ‘sizzle reels’ that can make any show look amazing. Why can’t you do a sizzle reel for the day?”

The endeavor is labor intensive. A team of five people works in shifts overnight to compile the piece, sifting through reams of video and news, and then updates it all so the clips are of the moment when they open the show. “We have a whole infrastructure. We don’t rely on anyone use to aggregate it. We have to DVR everything ourselves, all of that – cable, primetime, and stuff on the web,” Licht explained. “The reason why no one else is doing it is because we had to figure out how to do it, and it’s really difficult.”

It’s also tough to explain the balancing act O’Donnell, King and Rose must attempt each day. While the anchors may nod to a clip of a dog getting in a float to retrieve a ball in a pool, they will also analyze Apple financials in an in-depth segment that was one of the longest on a broadcast in July. They don’t rely on scripted banter prepared ahead of time, and say their chemistry is what propels the show.

The Apple segment could have turned out to be something more appropriate for the traders who watch “Squawk Box” on CNBC or Maria Bartiromo on Fox Business Network.  To make it their own, the trio peppered Nicholas Thompson, the editor of NewYorker.com, on everything from sales in China to the fate of the Apple Watch. “When you see three anchors asking one guest a question and the ability for us to play like that, it’s unheard of,” said O’Donnell. “There’s nothing set or scripted. Those were our questions.”

Rise And Shine

Now that the show has gained traction, the network has a new goal for it: Significant growth. “The show is being seen by more people than have watched a CBS morning show in 20 years, and we are really proud of that,” said David Rhodes, the president of CBS News, in an interview. “I don’t want to say we are just committed to doing nicely. Doing nicely is nice. We would like to do better than nicely.”

Licht doesn’t think “CBS This Morning” needs to raid its sparring partners at ABC or NBC for more eyeballs.” I think there’s a whole audience out there that may have given up on morning shows, because all three were the same,” he said. “They may not know there’s a different option in the morning.”

Can the program maintain its hard-news sensibility and still gain viewers? The hosts think so, and don’t express much interest in taking part in the type of shtick that would draw viewers looking for broader entertainment. There’s a reason John Oliver recently made fun of the program on his HBO show by piecing together snippets of King, O’Donnell and Rose talking about sex over the course of a variety of segments: It’s not the sort of thing viewers expect to hear while watching CBS.

“I think you dance with the girl that brought you,” said Rose, meaning he wants to keep winning viewers with a keen interest in world affairs, business and culture, not court a different crowd. “I think we’ve just begun to tap into all the things we can do as we redefine mornings.”  King thinks the show’s current mission is the reason why more viewers are tuning in. “I think they like it. It would be a mistake to change what we are doing,” she said.

Back in the studio during a recent broadcast Licht and his producers came up with an esoteric tune to accompany a “CBS This Morning” segment: Donovan’s “There Is A Mountain.” As video on the show depicted a mountain collapsing, viewers heard the song’s lyrics: “First there is a mountain / Then there is no mountain / Then there is.” The team had “about six minutes to think about it,” noted Licht, and one of the audio techs came up with the tune in the nick of time.  As “CBS This Morning” hosts and producers move forward in their quest to conquer TV’s early hours, they may want to keep the song in mind. In the morning-news wars, once you climb one hill, another one often presents itself.