Gayle King, Anthony Mason and Tony Dokoupil have many years of experience behind them, And yet, in the world of morning TV, they are the new kids on the block.
In TV-news circles, this story is getting a little worn: CBS News retooled its morning program as King began gaining new traction with important newsmaker interviews and in the wake of Charlie Rose being ousted from the division. Now King, Dokoupil and Mason are working on telling a new tale about a morning program that burnishes a more serious demeanor than “Good Morning America” or “Today.”
“Viewers have all these choices ,and we want them to know we’re not wasting a minute of their time,” says Diana Miller, the program’s executive producer.
“CBS This Morning” remains in third place behind its rivals at NBC and ABC. But in an interview edited for length and clarity that was conducted as part of Variety’s look this week at the transformation of morning TV, the three anchors express hope that they can move things forward – not by copying what others do, but by staying true to the program’s original mission.
Variety: There’s an overwhelming sense that people are changing they way they get their news. Why do you think some people still have a connection to morning TV?
Gayle King: I get the sense that people are still watching morning TV. I think by the time you get to the noon or evening, you’ve had all day to look at the news, but I do think people still get up and turn on their television, and the first thing they have to do is feel comfortable with you, and they have to like you. There;s no recipe for that. Either they do or they don’t. You have chemistry with your co-anchors or you don’t. It/’s just not something you can plan. The viewer has to feel comfortable with you and believe in you.
Tony Dokoupil: We know people are home at that time. They just woke up. You’re there. We are the first voice other than your family you are going to hear in the morning.
Anthony Mason: It’s always been a peculiar television spot, because while people have you on, they are not necessarily watching. Sometimes, they are just listening and they are coming in and out of the room. Unlike some shows that are designed to pull you in at the beginning and hold you, this show constantly has to adjust to the patterns of its audience, which is moving at that time. Almost any other TV show, you’ve made a commitment and you are stationary.
Variety: Is this a brand new morning show or just an evolution of the original “CBS This Morning” concept?
Dokoupil: You tell us.
Variety; Some people might see it as a brand new show. The name is the same and the mission in the same, but…
King: I remember lamenting to [CBS News President} Susan Zirinsky when we had our stuff: ‘Oh God, now we have to start from scratch.’ She said, ‘Don’t say that. I will not allow you to say that, because we are not starting from scratch. We have a good foundation here. People know what we stand for. The only thing that’s changing is we are changing the team, but we are not really changing the core of what we are.’ When she said that, that was very comforting to me because I was like ‘Oh God, it’s going back to the starting line. We were making progress.’
Dokoupil: The team change is not all that significant. We’ve all been around.
Mason: I’ve worked here for a little while.
King: Yeah, but it was our first time working with each other.
Mason: That was a huge part of it.
King: We didn’t bring in anyone from the outside.
Variety: Was there any team-building activity before you all went on the air?
King: We had dinner at Susan’s house, but we didn’t have to have a getting to know you session, It was really more for fun. It wasn’t like we had to have a bonding experience.
Mason: We didn’t have to get out the zipline.
King: I thought the transition, if you can call it a transition, was actually pretty seamless. From day one for me, I didn’t feel we were starting something new and different, even though it was new. I didn’t feel we were doing something that had not been done before.
Mason: You had ambivalence about starting over, and if they had come to me and said, ‘We are going to create a new morning show,’ I would have said, ‘Thanks, but you don’t need me.’ Because who knows what it would it have been and they are really hard to create, They are beasts even when they are really running well. It’s a massive machine You have to go on the air each day knowing who you are, or you are going to have a mess. It’s that simple. We all felt the show has a heartbeat. It has a philosophy.
Variety: ‘CBS This Morning’ has always had a harder newsier positioning. Do you feel there are more regular A.M. viewers who just feel the news cycle is just too wild for Halloween costumes and cooking segments?
King; That’s what they’ve told me.
Mason: Me too.
King: People come up to me every single day, when I’m out publicly, unsolicited, and say ‘I really like that you guys are giving me the news. I really like that you don’t do cooking, you don’t do costumes.’ Not to knock anybody who does that, because there are different strokes for different folks. But I do get the impression that people do like what we are doing here ,and they come to us with that expectation.
Dokoupil: People understand we give them information – not tips and tricks, but an understanding of what is going on in their world. When you go to buy a brand new car, does it feel much more expensive? What has changed exactly? Here are the numbers, and what’s going on behind the scenes. People don’t have strategies for dealing with that. They have a grasp of these bigger forces that are shaping their lives.
King: Our competitors will say, ‘ I really like what you guys are doing.’ They shall remain nameless, but they are well-known.
Mason: To me, it’s a real clean show…What I find about the audience and the people I talk to is they want it clean. They want it straight. They want to learn something. They want to walk away with something of value If you can give them that, they will be incredibly loyal.
King: You can’t overlook what the other guy is doing, but you have to be true to what you do best. That is how we operate here.
Mason: This version of ‘CBS This Morning’ was largely a reaction. We had a look at everybody else and said ‘We are lousy at doing what they do. We have never done it well. We don’t know how to do it. We fall on our face every time we try. Let’s do what we do and try to turn that into a morning show.’ And it’s one of the most successful launches we’ve ever had. I think as long as we stay true to that idea, we will have an audience
Variety: It’s no secret that viewership for all the broadcast morning shows has been falling. As sort of the new team on the block, does that make your jobs more difficult or challenging?
King: You can look at the numbers. Are we still number three? Yeah. We are all aware of that. But I think we are seeing very exciting signs of how people are gravitating to this new team.
Variety: Could you describe the metabolism of the show and whether you think it has revved up from the recent past? It feels like one of you is on the ground every other day talking to a big newsmaker.
King: We are always knocking on doors.
Mason: And when you get those moments, you have to take them and run with them with everything you’ve got…My general feeling in these things is you have to put your head down and work your butt off and when you come up out of It later on, you hope you have moved the ball pretty down the field. You can’t try to analyze every step you take, you’ve just got to have a driving philosophy of ‘This is what I want go do and I’ve got to keep doing it.’
Variety: Is there pressure to keep up a drumbeat of exclusives?
Dokoupil: They are always nice to have but you can’t live and die by exclusives…You live and die day to day. How are we putting together the show and how are we bringing it to you?
Variety: Has interviewing gotten more aggressive in this time when people are using terms like “fake news” to try to ward off journalistic scrutiny?
Dokoupil: I don’t think that works in the morning, I think there have been moments where there have been spikes in a conversation, and afterwards, I think to myself: That can’t happen. I don’t think the audience likes that. It’s not good.
King: I do think you have to be more diligent, because people do go to great lengths to avoid a question.
Dokoupil: I think you take the old ’30 Rock’ lesson. Who did Alec Baldwin play the GE executive?
Variety: Jack Donaghy.
Dokoupil: You take the Jack Donaghy method. Tina Fey told him to talk slow, stay low…. When somebody else has their temperature up, you keep your down. When their voice is being raised, you keep yours low and even. Polite. Mr. and Mrs.
Mason: It is tricky though. There is that element of the audience that wants you to go after whoever that political figure is, and when you don’t, they let you know. And then there’s another element that doesn’t want the fight because it becomes noise and they can’t decipher what’s going on ,and they let you know, too. You’re going to lose almost whatever you do…We’ve been in these situations when we’ve had guests who have dissembled and we’ve pressed and you can end up in fights pretty quickly if you’re not careful.
King: It’s a lose-lose. At some point, you have to let it go and move on. The audience sees I’ve asked the question. I’ve asked it again. Oh, you’re still not going to answer it. So let’s move on.
Variety: Gayle, a lot was made of CBS’ ability to sign you to a new deal. Do you feel that puts more pressure on you personally?
King: No, I don’t. I know that no one person can do this. A lot was made about it. But I don’t look at it now that I have re-signed. I don’t look at it as a big responsibility. My responsibility is to make sure the three of us have a great show, and I have always looked at it that way. I was glad to be able to re-sign, because I would not have stayed. I was really prepared to move on, but I’ve always had a great relationship with CBS and wanted to continue it.
Variety: Were you considering moving on because the show was changing?
King: No, because I had certain things that I wanted, and they weren’t going to give them to me, and I was going to leave. It’s really that simple. I liked where the show was going and I was excited about the new team.
Variety: Do you all feel you are here for the longer term?
Mason: I don’t think of anything in this business as long-term. If you think that way, you’re doomed.
King: That’s so true.
Mason: You have to look at this business on a six month by six month basis. I have a contract, don’t’ get me wrong. What I mean is this business is shifting so constantly that I think you have to constantly re-evaluate what you are doing. A show isn’t just the two hours of television you’re on. It’s what you are putting out on social media and how you are putting that out. These things all complement each other. Is the same message you’re trying to get int the two hours the same message going out on your social-media platform? How do you tailor each of these to its widest audience?
Dokoupil: That said, I would like do this the rest of my life. It’s the greatest job in television.
Mason: I’ve got a better chance of that than you. (Laughs)
King: I do think it’s a great job…I’d like to stay as long as the audience says we like having you in our room. I’d like to stay as long as they want us in the room with them, however long that is, but we know the day always comes when you get that call to the office and they say, ‘We are moving in a different direction.’ It may have nothing to do with you. It’s just the reality of the business.
Variety: How do you feel the special show on mental health with the live studio audience went, and would you be interested in trying more of that?
Mason: There was an army of people that put that together and they did an unbelievable job.
King: That’s the perfect definition of success: It may or may not pop a number, and we didn’t go into it thinking it was going to pop a number But the public service that we gave, I think, trumps,for me what the number would be.