CBS News wants to spread some of its venerable newsmagazine “Sunday Morning” to other days of the week.
Starting September 7, the entire CBS morning schedule will be treated as a larger franchise, with weekdays and Saturdays featuring some of the in-depth and longform features for which the Sunday show — a TV-news institution — is best known.
The weekday program, which features Gayle King, Tony Dokoupil and new co-host Nate Burleson, will be retitled “CBS Mornings,” and will be part of a lineup that includes “CBS Saturday Morning” and “CBS Sunday Morning.” Once known as “CBS This Morning,” the show will continue to highlight the breaking news of the day and the interactions of its hosts, but place new emphasis on longform stories in its second hour. The Saturday and Sunday shows, hosted by Jeff Glor, Dana Jacobson and Michelle Miller and by Jane Pauley, respectively, will continue with the formats to which their viewers are accustomed. Shawna Thomas remains executive producer of the weekday show, while Brian Applegate oversees Saturdays and Rand Morrison continues to supervise Sundays.
“What we are all doing is leaning into our strength. We are playing our game,” says Neeraj Khemlani, who joined the company as president and co-head of its news and stations unit in May, in an interview. He sees CBS News’ willingness to feature longer interviews and in-depth reporting as a competitive distinction and tied into the history of the division known for anchors like Charles Kuralt and Walter Cronkite, and believes the new branding will give streamers something they can recognize and understand no matter when they want to watch the program.
“We are essentially building a franchise that is seven days a week,” he adds.
CBS News’ new morning recipe arrives after its main rivals have taken significant steps in recent months to expand their own A.M. stock. ABC News extended the Saturday edition of “Good Morning America” in 2019 and has also launched an early-afternoon version of the show on weekdays. NBC News has installed Willie Geist at “Sunday Today,” where he does lengthy interviews with celebrities, and placed the Saturday “Today” broadcast in the hands of Peter Alexander and Kristen Welker in Washington. For all three broadcast networks, the news programs represent hours of content viewers identify with easily and sponsors feel comfortable supporting.
It’s no secret that the current weekday morning program, “CBS This Morning,” has not been able to get out of third place in the ratings — a condition that has afflicted CBS since it ran the kids’ program “Captain Kangaroo” in the early hours of the day. Millions of dollars are at stake. CBS News’ seven days of morning programs generated nearly $258 million in advertising in 2020, according to data from Kantar, a tracker of ad spending. A meaningful boost in viewership could drive new revenue for the network. All the broadcast morning programs have seen audiences slip in recent years, a dynamic fueled in part by the exodus of some viewers to digital media and also by a hard focus from cable competitors on politics.
CBS News had already unveiled some of its plans to retool the weekday show, which will soon hold forth from a new studio in Times Square, along with its Saturday counterpart. Burleson, a former NFL player, will add a new element to the mix. The move, which emulates ABC’s use of Michael Strahan at “GMA” has raised some eyebrows, as the CBS show has distinguished itself by avoiding some of the frillier trappings of morning television. Khemlani believes Burleson, who has signed a broader deal with ViacomCBS that also involves sports, will add a spark to the proceedings. “He has been doing segments with us over the summer, and the chemistry was just powerful at the table,” says Khemlani. “The one thing that a morning show has a higher burden on than anything else is the chemistry between the anchors.” Anthony Mason, who had been co-anchoring the program, will continue to appear, contributing in-depth pieces on music and culture.
“Sunday Morning” has been on the air continuously since Charles Kuralt launched it in 1979, and is seen by its adherents as both a TV hallmark and a weekend ritual. Indeed, CBS has tried in the past to import the program to the rest of the week. In the late 1970s and early 80s, Bob Schieffer and then Kuralt himself (with Diane Sawyer) hosted a weekday morning program that was heavy on magazine-style pieces, and won critical plaudits, but not as many viewers as affiliates would have liked.
Khemlani believes the Sunday formula has longstanding appeal, particularly in a time when viewers sometimes find news to be polarizing. “When you watch ‘Sunday Morning,’ what they do is they tell stories of people who are tackling the biggest challenges of our time, but in a very constructive way,” he says. “It’s unifying as opposed to being divisive.”
Executives have been testing the performance of in-depth pieces — what Khemlani calls “high calorie, high quality, longer stories” — during “CBS This Morning” in recent weeks. Those segments have included a June 7 interview between correspondent Holly Williams and the president of Ukraine on the border with Russia; a piece by Charlie D’Agata on Afghan interpreters; and a story by Adrianna Diaz on growing up in Washington Heights tied to release of the film “In The Heights.” Khemlani says those stories have proven to be some of the weekday show’s most engaging content in recent broadcasts.
Even the popular trumpet fanfare that greets viewers of “Sunday Morning” will find its way to its counterparts. “There is a real affection for that program,” says Khemlani. CBS is counting on the sound of that horn to lure new viewers in an era when doing so has become a tougher task.