Return of Bryant Gumbel: Karmazin Bets $30 Million on New CBS Morning Show

For years, CBS has employed two men who have been powerhouses in the potentially very profitable business of morning television–former Today show producer Steve Friedman, who runs WCBS, the New York affiliate, and former Today show host Bryant Gumbel, who has been pulling down $6 million a year from the network while doing, well, not much of anything. At the same time, the network’s own morning show, CBS This Morning , has been dismal, a perennial third-place finisher.

At last, CBS executives have decided to reunite the former colleagues in an effort to make some better TV and, perhaps, some real money. Come November, Mr. Gumbel will take his place on a sleek set in the retrofitted showroom of the General Motors Building on Fifth Avenue, with Mr. Friedman as executive producer.

Mr. Gumbel, who left Today in January 1997–saying he was over the whole morning television thing–said he’s not nervous about his comeback attempt. “The honest to God truth is, I don’t look at this as win or lose on a personal basis,” he said, sounding just slightly annoyed at being on the other end of an interview. “I’m going to do the best I can and if people watch, terrific. If not, then we’ll figure something else out.”

The new show will mark Mr. Gumbel’s return to network television after what will basically be a year-long absence. His CBS nighttime news magazine show, Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel , died a quick death in ’98–too quick, say Gumbel loyalists; in its place in the CBS universe is 60 Minutes II , a network darling produced by 60 Minutes legend Don Hewitt.

Executives at CBS are betting that Public Eye didn’t detract from the Gumbel name. They’ve staked $30 million on it just for starters, putting that money in the new studio on Fifth Avenue between East 58th and East 59th streets. The space is owned by Donald Trump and leased to General Motors, a CBS sponsor that gave over its lease to the network; as part of the deal, CBS will run some General Motors ads for free. The Buicks and Cadillacs have been cleared out, the walls and floors stripped. In their place are scaffolding, sheet rock and beams atop bare concrete. This is 5,000 square feet of barren space that goes up two stories. In the end, it will be Manhattan’s latest glassed-in studio, with views of the Plaza and Central Park. And if you’re thinking this is a copycat move, consider that Mr. Friedman was the one who reintroduced the glassed-in studio, a relic of 1950s television, over at Today in 1994. Following that, Today returned to its former glory as the No. 1-rated morning show after a period of Good Morning America dominance. (Not surprisingly, ABC is now getting started on a glass studio for Good Morning America in Times Square, a neighborhood already home to MTV’s fishbowl.)

With its 2.8 average Nielsen rating, representing just over 2 million viewers, CBS This Morning brings in about $30 million a year for CBS. Compare that to NBC’s No. 1-rated Today , with its 6.03 average rating and $200 million a year, and anyone can see that CBS was squandering a chance at making millions. According to an industry source, even an improvement of just one rating point could bring in roughly $70 million annually for CBS, the newly No. 1-rated network, which has become more profit-minded under its new boss, Mel Karmazin. The second-highest-rated morning show, ABC’s Good Morning America , with its 3.8 average rating, makes upwards of $100 million.

To bring its breakfast program in line with such network fare as Late Show With David Letterman and Late, Late Show With Craig Kilborn , Mr. Friedman has come up with a new name: The Early Show . Along with the new name, it will also have a 15 percent higher annual budget of between $30 and $40 million.

This is the kind of gamble that Mr. Karmazin has been more than willing to take over and over again since he became the CBS Corporation’s CEO in January of this year. In the ’98-99 season, CBS knocked NBC from the top of the ratings heap and is now watched by the most households for the first time since 1994.

Mornings are a part of the day where networks are still making a killing, the only place where their audience is still growing. During the last four years, the three major networks’ morning audience has grown from 12.1 million viewers per morning to 12.8 million. (Why else would former nighttime news diva Diane Sawyer agree to wake up at 4 A.M. to do Good Morning America ?)

Morning is also a place where CBS hasn’t had a presence for 30 years. Already this spring, when advertisers visited New York to cut deals for the ’99-’00 season, CBS collected about 10 percent more in ad sales for next season than it did the year before, network sources said; chalk it up to Mr. Gumbel’s return.

Gumbel and Friedman

Mr. Gumbel and Mr. Friedman go way back. Mr. Friedman is the one who lured the host to Today from KNBC in Los Angeles, where Mr. Gumbel was a sportscaster. The move was historic, making Mr. Gumbel the first black national news presence. After leaving to create USA Today on TV , a syndicated television show which flopped, he returned to NBC in 1990 to produce Nightly News With Tom Brokaw (while also helping to create Dateline NBC ). When Today started sagging–eventually dropping behind Good Morning America with a 4.1 rating to the other show’s 4.4 in 1994–Mr. Friedman was brought back in. It was then that he dreamed up the glass booth studio.

The idea, Mr. Friedman said, was to imitate the glass-fronted set that David Garroway used on Today in the 1950s–an idea that didn’t quite work in its day. “See, they were ahead of their time,” Mr. Friedman said in his office at CBS headquarters on West 57th Street. “They knew what kind of show the Today show could be. They didn’t have satellites, they didn’t have live capability, they didn’t portable cameras. They couldn’t do anything. The sound didn’t work. So I took what they did and I said, `You know, it’s time–we can do all this.’”

But after clashing repeatedly with NBC News chief Andrew Lack, Mr. Friedman was forced out in 1994. He did a brief stint at Savoy pictures; then in December of 1997, he signed on at WCBS to revive its news broadcasts, which had been something of a creep show throughout the ’90s. His innovations–more lifestyle features, more cable-style financial reporting, less on-air goofing by the news team–led to improved ratings.

That same year, Mr. Gumbel joined CBS–with a $6 million-per-year, five year contract–to start a new television magazine show. The single-season run of Public Eye followed.

“We were all disappointed when that happened,” said an executive who was linked to the project.

Said Mr. Gumbel: “Would I have loved another season? Sure, I would have. No one ever heard me cry about it. I’ve always contended that it’s their network and they can do what they want.”

After the cancellation, Mr. Gumbel was spending more time on the golf course than he was in front of the cameras, all but thumbing his nose at the CBS executives locked into the gargantuan contract with him. Whether he works or not, CBS must pay him nearly as much as it pays Dan Rather, who makes $7 million per year, through the winter of 2001.

While the rest of the CBS news staff negotiated the twists and turns of the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton saga, Mr. Gumbel was out on the links. The only time he was on TV was for his HBO show, Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel . In March, he showed up on the cover of Travel & Leisure Golf . The story detailed how he was planning a weekend golf trip to celebrate his 50th birthday–among the guests, Matt Lauer of Today –from his CBS office. He told the magazine: “At this point, am I supposed to be hungering for a new show? Or should I be hungering for retirement? I don’t know.”

At cocktail parties, Mr. Gumbel was making half-serious jokes about retirement when Public Eye was on its way out. Critically, however, the show was something of a success, winning a Peabody Award for a piece about the victim of a drunk driving accident in upstate New York, coming face to face with the motorist in court.

“I think Bryant has been saying out loud for a long time that he doesn’t want to work that hard,” said an executive at another network.

This was not what CBS executives wanted to be reading and hearing from their $6 million man.

How It Came Together

CBS Television President and CEO Leslie Moonves denies there was tension between Mr. Gumbel and the network, but admitted that when they looked at CBS’ weakness in the morning, the name Gumbel came to mind.

“The morning news area is something that we have been looking at for a long time,” said Mr. Moonves. “How do you make it better? And we kept saying to ourselves, `Jesus, we have the best guy in the history of morning television sitting on the bench.’”

Mr. Friedman proved to be the key.

From time to time CBS news division head, Andrew Heyward, would ask Mr. Friedman how things could improve in the morning. Mr. Friedman had pumped WCBS’ evening news up a bit since arriving–in two years raising the ratings of the 5 o’clock broadcast 28 percent and those of the 6 o’clock broadcast 14 percent. Part of his job was the WCBS morning news program that aired from 7 A.M. to 8 A.M.; the CBS network had given the local affiliates the choice between running their own stuff at that time if they did not wish to carry the full two-hour broadcast of CBS This Morning . CBS executives started asking him why he wasn’t putting more resources into his WCBS morning news broadcast.

“I would always answer, `Until the network either gets out of the time period or does a real show, there’s nothing I can do in the morning,’” Mr. Friedman said. “So I’m not going to spend any time or any amount of money worrying about doing a car crash when Matt’s interviewing Hillary Clinton, because guess what, it ain’t going to happen.”

Asked what he would do to make it better in the spring of 1998, Mr. Friedman said a new, glass studio, his forte, would be a good start. And he had always eyed that General Motors space, even when he was planning the Today studio.

“He and Andrew started talking. Steve’s an opinionated, strong-willed kind of a guy,” said one executive privy to the talks. “His opinion was, you cannot be competitive, or win at this game without a big-name star, without a marquee location. So that’s kind of what they set out to do and to sell to the company. I think to Les Moonves as much as to Mel Karmazin.”

Both Moonves and Karmazin liked the idea.

“If we can get a slight increase in ratings, and I’m talking about slight, there’s a huge amount of money to be taken,” said Mr. Moonves. “This thing can pay for itself with just moderate increases.”

Mr. Karmazin and Mr. Moonves approached Mr. Trump, who bought the General Motors Building about a year ago for $800 million. Both know him socially, with Mr. Karmazin having recently purchased an $11.4 million apartment in the Trump International Tower earlier this month. Mr. Trump said there was nothing he could do since part of his deal with General Motors gave them a 10-year lease on the showroom, men on both sides of the deal said.

“Mel, who’s a terrific business man, approached me and said, `Would it be possible?’” Mr. Trump said. “We jointly approached General Motors.”

It didn’t take much arm-twisting for G.M. to get on board. Meanwhile, Mr. Trump was excited about having a CBS studio in his building. He agreed to build a new plaza out front, with fountains and landscaping, to make the view out of the building’s front windows ever prettier. He also agreed to post cameras on that building and atop his residential tower on Central Park West for skyline and Central Park shots.

But there was still the question of Mr. Gumbel. CBS knew it needed a star. Mr. Friedman wanted him. But executives like Mr. Moonves didn’t think he’d go for it. No new projects for Mr. Gumbel could be agreed upon immediately after Public Eye was canceled. Mr. Gumbel’s agent, Ed Hookstratten, said executives had discussed a new magazine show, but nothing ever came of it, adding that no ideas were up to snuff for Mr. Gumbel. And besides, Mr. Gumbel left Today because morning TV no longer interested him.

Mr. Friedman said he didn’t approach Mr. Gumbel until this past winter, when negotiations for the building were getting serious–taking him out to dinner at Ben Benson’s steak house. “When we first talked, I said, `Bryant, if you want to do it, we’ll have a lot of fun. But if you don’t want to do it, let me know because then I’ll do something else,’” said Mr. Friedman. “`But I’m committed to do this. I’m committed to building this studio. I think it’s time. I think after five-and-a-half years, Today is tired. And I think people are tired of working it and watching it and Good Morning America is in total chaos. This is an opportunity for us, if you want to be part of this, let me know.’

“He said, `I’m not saying yes, because I want to see a lot of what you guys are doing. But I’m not saying no.’ And then as time developed he got more and more enthused. The building came together, the idea came together and he said, `You know what? Let’s do it.’”

But why? Mr. Gumbel could collect his paycheck and play golf.

The bottom line is that Mr. Gumbel, according to those close to him, is a competitor–and the idea of going out with a loss was not an option. Said a former CBS news executive: “I think that if you really look at, so here’s your career and you basically have however long he had to go in his contract, he doesn’t have a vehicle. So Steve his old pal comes back and says this is going to be great. It’s like, `I got a barn and we’re going to put on a show! I got $30 million from the corporation, we got the Trump building, it’s going to be you and me!’”

Mr. Gumbel almost admits as much. He doesn’t disagree that if Mr. Friedman weren’t producing the show, he probably wouldn’t have agreed to do it. And, he said, the one thing Public Eye proved to him was that taped stuff isn’t up his alley. He’s best suited for live television.

“I think, look, I love to compete and I like live television, so it seems a fairly natural fit,” Mr. Gumbel said.

Now comes the hard part of putting together a show.

The set designs are nearly complete. According to draft mock-ups reviewed by The Observer , it will be slick and newsy looking, with hardwood walls lined with soft gray metal wrapping around a desk where Mr. Gumbel will sit with a yet-to-be-named, female co-host. Overhead, there will be a shiny oval displaying the Early Show logo. Stage lights will hang down within camera range. To the side, on East 59th Street, will be a second news desk, where the yet-to-be-named news reader will sit. In the back, facing the Early Show set, will be a new WCBS (Channel 2) news set. Endless windows will be fronted by another sheet of glass that can go opaque at the touch of a button to zone out the crowds in case someone gets rowdy or a tragic news story makes tourists with “We Love You Bryant” signs seem inappropriate. The offices and control room will be downstairs.

The hard part is building the cast. Current CBS This Morning host Mark McEwen will stay on as weather and entertainment correspondent. The fate of co-host Thalia Assuras is up in the air.

Mr. Friedman, whose CBS office is strewn with video tapes and resumes, said he won’t hesitate to sweep the joint out. This is a guy who carries a Louisville Slugger into staff meetings.

“If anybody up there feels that they’re entitled to a job because they just have one and they don’t have to do what I say and how I say it be done, they will find themselves out of work,” Mr. Friedman said, waving his bat. “You know, I’m not in there to win popularity contests–I’m there to do a good show.”

The most pressure, and the most interest, has been in who will be chosen as a co-host. Every name from Oprah Winfrey to Deborah Norville to Dateline NBC ‘s Margaret Larson has been floated. He hopes to name a co-host before CBS’ July 25 Los Angeles press tour. Mr. Friedman knows that is his most important pick after Mr. Gumbel. Network research shows that Mr. Gumbel is loved by some, hated by others who find him arrogant and cold at times. So the co-host has to complement him perfectly.

“Whether it’s morning, noon or night, he is never going to say to the audience, `You gotta’ like me, please like me,’” Mr. Friedman said. “He doesn’t care. He wants to make sure you know he’s the best goddamn interviewer on television.”