The Zen Art of Early Show’s Zev Shalev

c nytvlionel richey The Zen Art of Early Shows Zev ShalevOn the morning of Friday, June 12, in a makeshift tent on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Intrepid aircraft carrier, past a crowd of umbrella-toting tourists glistening in the misty morning rain, past a row of fighter planes facing a tug boat creeping up the Hudson River and past a stage outfitted with Lionel Richie’s piano, Zev Shalev looked at a clock. Seven minutes until airtime. He took a long gulp of water.

A few hours earlier, long before dawn, Mr. Shalev, the 36-year-old executive producer of The Early Show on CBS, had woken up at his apartment in Chelsea and checked the weather. According to various Doppler radar screens, a green blob of precipitation was menacing Manhattan. Not good, thought Mr. Shalev. It was the first morning of CBS’s summer concert series, and Mr. Shalev had signed up Mr. Richie and Akon, fresh off a new hit single, to rock the kickoff. But at the last minute, Akon had backed out, citing, of all things, the recent passing of Omar Bongo, the president of Gabon.

Sometimes running a morning show is like that. A little bit nuts. Typically, when he gets stressed out, Mr. Shalev likes to hop on his bike and cycle around Manhattan. About a year ago, he’d been peddling up the west side of the island when he saw the Intrepid—the hulking aircraft carrier–turned–museum—for the first time. That would be a righteous place to throw a concert, he thought.

One year later, a dark drizzle fell on Manhattan. Men and women in ponchos huddled by the stage. Anchor Julie Chen, pregnant with the child of her husband, the president of CBS, Leslie Moonves (Mr. Shalev’s, gulp, boss), gingerly walked across the slick deck. Soaking wet electrical wires snaked underfoot. The potential for calamity ran high.

Mr. Shalev removed his Navy baseball cap, and ran his hand over his closely trimmed skull. All around him, the makeshift control room was buzzing with last-minute equipment checks. Mr. Shalev, who has intense blue eyes, a soul patch and a South African accent, surveyed the scene with preposterous calm.

He smiled: “This is like doing TV is a war zone.”

 

IN THE SPRING of 2008, Mr. Shalev—who was born in Israel and raised in South Africa—was living in Toronto and on holiday in Argentina when he received a phone call from CBS News offering him a job at The Early Show. Up until then, Mr. Shalev had enjoyed a varied media career. He had managed a news division for an independent radio station in South Africa and worked as an overnight solid-gold DJ. He had served as the executive producer of a major Canadian morning show. He had founded an Internet-based reality-TV show, launched a TV station and produced Entertainment Tonight Canada.

But the globe-trotting TV producer had never worked in American television. The opportunity was appealing. Pretty soon, he was settling into a tiny room at the Hudson Hotel.

At the time, The Early Show was struggling to recover in the aftermath of a bloody civil war. The trouble had started in the fall of 2007, when CBS News’ president, Sean McManus, hired Shelley Ross, the notoriously aggressive TV producer, to jump-start the show, which for years had languished in the ratings, trailing far behind NBC’s Today and ABC’s Good Morning America. Ms. Ross clashed with her staff almost immediately. As tension mounted, gossip about the discord continuously surfaced in the press. Eventually, CBS News executives let Ms. Ross go. Rick Kaplan, the executive producer of the CBS Evening News, temporarily took over. 

“Rick was new to morning television,” Mr. Zhalev reminisced to The Observer recently, when asked about his first few weeks on the job. “The staff had been through its own issues. It was a really interesting place to walk into. It had a lot of potential. But it needed some work.”

That summer, Mr. Shalev submitted a 10-page proposal to the president of the news division, outlining changes he would like to make to the show. Mr. McManus evidently liked what he saw. In June of 2008, Mr. Shalev was promoted to executive producer. 

One year later, The Early Show remains in last place. But under Mr. Shalev’s steady hand, a calm has settled over the show’s staff. Morale is up. Tales of colleague-on-colleague viciousness no longer surface in Page Six.

More importantly, for the first time in recent memory, The Early Show was been generating headlines for the right reasons. In March, Vicki Iseman emerged from media seclusion for an interview with anchor Maggie Rodriquez in which the D.C. lobbyist vehemently denied sleeping with John McCain. A month later, Ms. Rodriguez landed a buzzy interview with Levi Johnston (né Sex on Skates) in which he dished on his breakup with Bristol Palin. And on April 16, The Early Show got British pop music sensation Susan Boyle to sing for the first time for an American TV audience.

Not surprisingly, this past month, The Early Show enjoyed a relatively successful May sweeps—racking up a 5 percent increase in year-to-year total viewers and remaining flat in the 25-to-54-year-old demographic, at a time when both NBC’s Today and ABC’s Good Morning America were shedding viewers. “I’d rather be in third and growing than in second and dropping,” said Mr. Shalev. “There’s less pressure. We have the luxury of experimenting.”

Thus the foray into aircraft carrier concerts. Not to mention recent dabbling with celebrity guest anchors (last month, Amanda Holden, the British actor and judge on Britain’s Got Talent, guest-anchored. She’ll do so again later this month.)

In fact, The Early Show has carved out a comparative advantage of late by getting to overseas tabloid stories before their competitors—from landing Ms. Boyle first to scoring a blockbuster interview in Malawi with the upset father of Madonna’s newly adopted child.

“Sometimes I think American media can be very shut off from the rest of the world,” said Mr. Shalev. “There are a lot of interesting stories out there. You just have to find the right way in.”

 

BACK AT THE Intrepid on Friday morning, Mr. Richie, in a long black leather coat, sang “Dancing on the Ceiling.” The crowd was sparse. But everyone who turned out boogied with abandon. Actress Betty White, of Golden Girls fame, rubbed Harry Smith’s bald head. Nobody was electrocuted.

Shortly after 9 a.m., Mr. Shalev removed his headset. He walked outside into the sprinkling rain and thanked various members of his crew. Mr. Shalev passed Mr. Smith, reached out and gave the anchor a congratulatory fist bump. The ghost of Shelley Ross felt long since exorcised.

“I think that we have a real spirit now that is terrific,” said Mr. Shalev. “You saw it today. Those were tough conditions to put together a show. … But everyone loves it so much. They came out to play.”

fgillette@observer.com